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What is capitalism and why should we be against it?

Dick Howard, Chris Nineham, Shane Mage, Leo Panitch, Chris Cutrone

Platypus Review 129 | September 2020

On May 23, 2020, the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a virtual panel discussion with Dick Howard (Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Stony Brook University), Chris Nineham (founding member and vice chair of the Stop the War Coalition), Shane Mage (former senior editor of Economics and Social Science for Collier’s Encyclopedia), Leo Panitch (Distinguished Research Professor of political science at York University), and Chris Cutrone (founding member of the Platypus Affiliated Society and professor of art history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago). What follows is an edited transcript of the event.
The full video of the discussion can be found at <>.

Opening remarks:

Dick Howard: My book The Marxian Legacy[1] traces something that we still have to go through. The third part asks the question, “Beyond Marxism.” This question of Marxism and its beyond is relevant to our present moment. In particular, it makes philosophical and theoretical questioning relevant.

What is Capitalism? I approach this always beginning from this Marxian legacy. How did capitalism come into being? What were the stages of its development, and where does it stand today? In particular, one has to look not simply at a set of economic developments; one has to look at the social conditions that make it possible. When we ask, “What is capitalism?” we are talking about forms of social relations, which always implicitly are held together by something which we could call “the political.” There is a political framework implicit in all of these social relations which gives them their meaning. One could say that capitalism is a set of attempts to impose an anti-political, to suppress the possibilities of collective and individual political action. So, when I talk about anti-politics I am also talking about capitalism and vice-versa.

It seems to me that in modern times, since the French and the American Revolutions, there have been basically two options for articulating the goal of modern radical politics.  The first one is the attempt to create a democratic republic. Most of the so-called socialist countries that mainly disappeared by 1989-91 called themselves democratic republics. The idea was that this social democracy would become identical with the state. This was the progression that starts with the French Revolution in 1789. In 1793 you have the radical phase of the French revolution. You go through a series of revolutionary processes in the French case, each time trying to create a democratic republic. You have the commune and so on. Then finally you have 1917, and it looks as if that democratic republic can be achieved in the form of a Soviet republic. Secondly, the American revolution created a republican democracy. This speaks to Trump and the present political situation. That is to say, you have the republican forms, such as the separation of powers and federalism, and the ingredients of a pluralistic society, which are preserved: the republic serves to keep the democracy alive. Anti-politics is the attempt precisely either to impose from the top down a democratic republic or alternatively to shut off the dynamism of a republican democracy; to shut off the movement within that republican democracy.

Your second question was: why should we oppose capitalism? The answer, quite simply, is that it is anti-democratic.

Chris Nineham:In thinking about an analysis of capitalism today and how it differs from the dawn of the system when Marx was writing, what strikes me is how relevant and contemporary Marx’s critique and analysis feels. There are two central points. On the one hand, there is the dynamism of the system, which Marx identified and talked about: the fact the system has been able to create and produce an absolutely almost unimaginable level of wealth, much greater than any previous economic or social system. On the other hand, because it is a system that is based on competitive accumulation, on competition between different countries and corporations, and of course now financial institutions as well, it is a system marked by all sorts of forms of chaos, disorganization and of course regular crises. I think it is important to re-assert the central contradiction that Marx talked about and that I think characterizes the system: what is good for the people who are making profits — who control the profit-making apparatus in the system and who control the flow of capital therefore — is bad for the vast majority of the population, for those people who are creating the wealth: the producers, working people.

This little quote from Marx is quite interesting, because it captures certain things about the current situation. “The more the worker produces,” he says, “the less he has to consume. The more values he creates the more valueless, the more unworthy he becomes… It is true that labor produces for the rich wonderful things — but for the worker it produces privation. It produces palaces — but for the worker, hovels.”[2]

It is true that if read in a certain way, Marx slightly overstates his case. Nevertheless, it is a very powerful evocation of the experience that working people have felt, very specifically under the conditions of corona, but also more generally in the period over the last 3 or 4 decades of what people talk about as neoliberalism. I think it is important to recognize that in the period after the second world war, as we are all aware, for a number of decades, in particular a series of developments led to a situation where the tendencies that Marx talked about there were, to a certain extent, abated. Obviously, there was the return of rocketing inequality, the bonfire of the regulations, an obsession with the free market, falling wages in many parts of the world, the cannibalization and restriction of the welfare state.

The very powerful critique and analysis which Marx generated in the second half of the 19th century is viscerally strong and has powerful explanatory value under what is called neoliberal capitalism. Now of course there are important differences. This is no direct return to the 19th century. You could list an increased level of monopolization that has created huge chunks of capital that are now regarded as too big to fail; that has all sorts of implications for the system. There are, in general, relatively low rates of profitability, which I think has had the impact of creating a looming financialization, which has been one of the key characteristics of neoliberal capitalism. There is also a certain tendency — at a lower level than we’ve seen in the past, but nevertheless a serious tendency — of the big powers considering resolving great power conflicts through military means and war.

With important modifications, I think the basic analysis that Marx developed is a very powerful tool in understanding the current situation. Not surprisingly, there is now a huge level of discontent and alienation. Questions are being asked, very often in a diffuse and contradictory way, about the nature of the system that we live under. In Britain, we very nearly had the breakup of the United Kingdom in 2014 with the Scottish referendum. You had the Brexit vote in 2016 which flew in the face of what the British establishment wanted. You have the rise of Corbynism — the rise and fall of Corbynism, I should say — in the Labour Party, which was a radical move to a new kind of politics. At the same time, that coincides with a relative weakness of the Left. There is a low level of what classically would be called class consciousness among large numbers of workers and industrial militancy.

Clearly the job of the Left is to try to think, develop and imagine ways of harnessing on a mass scale this discontent that has been generated in the current juncture. The virus, in Britain and other European countries, as well as in the United States and Canada, has massively accelerated the development of social democratic consciousness, demands for all sorts of reforms in the economy and a sense that neoliberalism cannot be allowed to continue to do its damage. It has also created this amazing situation where suddenly the workers, particularly the key workers and some of the most underpaid and precarious workers in society, are suddenly being regarded as key to the way the system operates and having a very important value. It’s remarkable how the developments around coronavirus have suddenly opened a perspective where you can see class struggle becoming really quite central, certainly in British society, in the next months and years.

Shane Mage: I dislike the term capitalism for a very simple reason: it is totally vague. It is used by all kinds of people to refer to all kinds of different things. As a Marxist, I recognize that Marx never used the word “capitalism.” Marx speaks of the capitalist mode of production, which is something very different. It had very specific characteristics. First of all, it is a form of class society. This is important because we’re dealing with the whole of human history, which in Marxian terms goes from a non-class state of affairs, through a long evolution of class societies, to a form of society which is essentially classless.

The origin of a class society always has to be in violence and force; that is, an exploited class cannot be kept exploited without the physical domination through violence of a ruling class. But the separation of the state, as Marx and later Lenin emphasized, comes not from the direct force of the ruling class, as, for example, the Greek and Roman aristocracies did. The capitalist mode of production begins with the first wage labor, when people no longer are producing directly from the land and paying taxes or tribute to the temple in return for the storage or perishable agricultural commodities and the organization of protection against neighboring states or societies. It spread in cities. Wage labor is practically synonymous with civilization.

As the spread of the capitalist mode of production globally has taken place, we see that its evolution has brought about a complete threat to the very survival of the human race and most other animal species. In terms of politics, this implies the values are not those of capitalism versus socialism, but health versus a fatal disease. That disease takes the form not only of global warming but of an overcrowded planet. The basic contradiction of the capitalist mode of production is the tendency inherent in the accumulation of money and debt to expanding production, as opposed to the natural limits of production: the alienation of one section of the natural world from another and therefore the antagonistic relationship of that section to it, which is expressed by phrases like “the conquest of nature” or “economic development.”

“Should we be against capitalism?” is almost a meaningless question, because everything that emerges from the modern capitalist mode of production is evil and anti-human in the most basic sense and which is why a change in social organization — a different form of state whether you call it republican democracy, socialism or anything else — has to deal with the overcoming of that basic contradiction between the human section of nature and the rest of nature.

Leo Panitch: If you had asked Marx and his contemporaries, who were excited by the revolutions of 1848 and Marx’s own writings, “What is capitalism?” at the beginning of the 21st century, they would have expected you to put it in terms of, “What was capitalism?” One of the most sobering things that the Left needs to think about is, why is capitalism going on two centuries after Marx was writing his great works? Why does capitalism still persist? It’s very important to have this perspective: it is not a short-term thing. They were writing 50 years after the French Revolution; you could perhaps understand why they thought the system would not last that long. Those of us who experienced the 1968 attempt at revolution and its failure to transcend the existing system can be much less confident or naïve about easily getting out of this system.

I’m perfectly happy to come at capitalism in various different ways and to begin with bourgeois society and the social relations and class relations that are endemic to it. What one does have to say is that the nature of those relations is not only between capital and labor, as if capital is one unified thing, but they are among capitalists. Marx’s most fundamental understanding is that the capitalist class is dynamic because it is inherently competitive. It is driven to competition; it is not so much driven to profit, except as Chris [Nineham] says, to reproduce itself.

That said, one of the weakest aspects of Marxism is its theory of the state, historically. Some of us have tried to improve that over the last 50 years. States evolved in a fashion such that they were able to keep capitalism going despite its contradictions, class conflicts, and irrationalities. This isn’t a matter of capitalists telling them what to do. They did it because, in order to be militarily competitive, secure enough resources to continue as a capitalist state, they began to facilitate capital accumulation. Their legitimacy became founded on that. They also became class-repressive, insofar as the central contradiction of capitalism is a class relation of exploitation, in which capitalists bring working people together and collectivize them as a productive force, they create the conditions for workers to come together.

As Marx said, if competition is what makes the capitalist class historically significant, it is organization that makes the working class historically significant. The product of that was the great mass trade unions and mass socialist parties that were emerging before Marx’s death and that developed between the 1870s and 1920s. A great many people in that era thought that due to capitalist contradictions, which I think they read wrongly in terms of an overaccumulation crisis, as well as the growing organizational capacity of the class, politically and industrially, that capitalism would come to an end in the first half of the 20th century.

For reasons Dick was pointing to, that didn’t happen. On the contrary, mass consumerism developed and the massification of finance developed, so that even if workers weren’t getting enough income, they were able to get enough credit to consume as capitalist consumers. Much of the welfare state was oriented toward allowing them to continue as capitalist consumers. It wasn’t the provision of collective goods for the most part, but the provision of basic income that allowed them to become consumers.

Has capitalism changed? Obviously, a great many Marxists through the course of the 20th century—this is still true of the Monthly Review-type of theorists today—think that capitalism became uncompetitive and became monopoly capitalism. I think that was a fundamental misunderstanding. It’s not that the concentration and centralization of capital didn’t happen, but it remained competitive even as that happened, with giant corporations competing with one another, if not over price, then over market share and access to markets. That helped to foster greater foreign direct investment and greater globalization, which, of course, was always there. It helped to foster what I’ve tried to theorize, namely, the internationalization of capitalist states, so that they were not only concerned with reproducing their own capitalist classes but were concerned with reproducing capital in general, including and especially foreign capital coming into their spheres of operations.

Is capitalism in crisis? Yes and no. Capitalism certainly is a crisis-ridden system, without a doubt. It isn’t subject to one particular kind of crisis. The great mistake of Marxist economists is to think that capitalism only succumbs either to the tendency of the rate of profit to fall or to crises of overaccumulation. No: because the system is competitive, and there isn’t an equilibrium that is reached behind the backs of this competition, as the bourgeois economists think, the crisis can occur in all kinds of ways.

The current crisis did not arrive out of a profitability crisis. Profits have been very high since the 2008 financial crisis. That one wasn’t a profitability crisis either but a financial crisis. It is notable that while you would have thought finance would have collapsed in the face of a production crisis, it has not. This is because capitalist states, especially the American state and, as the world’s central bank, the Federal Reserve, has become extremely good as a firefighter, or you may say, in this crisis, as a ventilator. It is not a wonderful thing in terms of human history that this is what the state can accomplish — it can put its finger in the dyke of capitalist crisis — but that is what it does.

What does this mean for the Left? I think we have to begin something very positive. In the past five to six years — Chris Nineham has worked with Jeremy Corbyn, so he knows this firsthand — you have seen a shift from protest to politics. We lived through a considerable period of anarchist revival, whether it was called that or not, at the beginning of the 21st century. The anti-globalization movement expressed that, the Occupy protests expressed that. That was understandable, given the failures that Dick was pointing, not only those of the communist parties, but also those of social democratic parties which, by the 1950s, were no longer agents of social transformations. After Occupy, people quickly recognized that you can protest until hell freezes over, and you’ll never change the world. And you saw a turn to getting into the state in order to transform the state. I don’t know how well that was thought through. But that was precisely what SYRIZA, Podemos, Sanders and Corbyn represent.

In the United States and Britain, of all places, the fact that Sanders and Corbyn were able to draw tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of people into this process is one of the most promising things of our time. We have to learn how to build on it, and we should have been sober about it all along. It was not a very class-rooted development, even if it was very class oriented. It was class focused in the sense of picking up Occupy’s crude class math of the 99%. But it was not class rooted and not only because the young people were not class rooted, but because the bloody unions were hostile to them. The class-rooted organizations are not oriented toward social transformations, or even to class formation, any longer.

We need not to be disappointed by the fact that Corbyn didn’t become Prime Minister and that Sanders didn’t become President. How far could they have gone, in any case, without building the capacities to see that through? Implementing those policies inside bourgeois states means transforming that state at its very core. But it also means a massive growth process of class formation again, given the way working classes have changed so much, since 1870-1920, inevitably insofar as capitalism has dynamically continued to unmake and remake the working class. That’s the task before the Left today.

Chris Cutrone: I will refer to three short pieces I have recently published in The Platypus Review which attempt to characterize capitalism in the way that capitalism tends to appear nowadays. They are called: “Robots and Sweatshops”, “Jobs and Free Stuff” and “Capital and Labor”.

According to Marx, capitalism is the contradiction of bourgeois social relations and industrial forces of production. The effect of this self-contradiction of bourgeois society in industrial production is the division of capital and labor. It is from this division that the opposed classes of capitalists and workers derive. The class struggle between workers and capitalists is a phenomenon — the phenomenal expression — of the self-contradiction of capitalism. It expresses labor’s contradiction with itself — which is also capital’s contradiction with itself. When referring to “capital and labor” there are actually just two forms of capital — Marx called these “variable and constant” as well as “fixed and circulating” capital — and both refer to labor — Marx called capital “alienated labor.” Labor and capital are two aspects of the same thing in capitalism. The bourgeois social relations of production are the social relations of labor.

The usual oppositions posed by the labor movement and by socialism, such as profit vs. human needs (and the needs of the natural world beyond humanity), are expressions of this self-contradiction of society in capitalism, the needs of capital as opposed to the needs of labor. The contradiction of capital is not external but internal.

Marx described capitalism as “false necessity.” What he meant by this was not simply wrong necessity, but rather self-contradictory necessity. For the needs of capital and the needs of labor are the same. In becoming opposed in capitalism, there is the conflict of labor with itself as well as of capital with itself.

In capitalist politics, there is another phenomenon — expression — of capital’s self-contradiction, namely, the disputes among capitalist politicians over government policy, which can also express conflicting interests of different capitalists, including different sectors of industry, between different capitalist nation-states, etc. Workers employed in different occupations as well as in industries can thus have different and conflicting interests, competing over the priorities of social investment in capital. The opposed aspects of capital — and of labor — are inseparable. Labor cannot be extricated from capital any more than capital can be from labor.

The goal of socialism is to realize capital as well as labor — to negate labor as well as capital. It is to realize as well as negate — overcome — capitalist necessity. What would such Aufhebung [sublation] mean?

Discontents in capitalism take various different and even opposed forms. The history of socialism itself as well as the history of capitalism expresses self-contradictory desires and goals. At different moments in the history of capitalism, the goals of socialism have taken various different and indeed opposed forms. For instance, socialism has variously regarded its goals as realizing the potential of capitalist production as opposed to abolishing capitalist production: achieving hyper-industrialism versus returning to subsistence primitivism have both found home at one time or place or another in the struggle for socialism. Socialism could be defined as both and neither of the opposed alternatives that capitalism generates as its own positive goals and its own self-negations. All the various opposed demands arising from the discontents in capitalism will be both fulfilled and negated — overcome — in socialism.

Capital seeks to abolish labor and labor seeks to abolish capital — but more importantly in capitalism capital seeks to abolish itself and labor seeks to abolish itself. By making labor more productive it becomes less necessary; by producing excess capital it becomes more superfluous — less a real measure of social value. Labor seeks to abolish itself in capitalism, and thus to abolish capital, tasking socialism.

Only by encompassing the wide variety of discontents within the working class and across the history of its developments in capitalism could the political movement for socialist revolution to overcome capitalism become adequate to its task and mission, by becoming conscious of it. Since capital is the product of labor and labor the product of capital, this would mean encompassing the divisions among the capitalists as well as within capitalism itself as a total movement of society. The achievement of socialist revolution would be when the working class can take responsibility politically for capitalism as a whole. In so doing, the working class would confront the choices posed by the contradictions of capitalism that are otherwise expressed by the conflicts between the different capitalists and thus among workers of the world. All the conflicts exhibited in the world must be grasped as expressions and various forms of the self-contradiction of capitalism. Such conflicts are necessary — to be overcome.

The false necessity of capitalism as self-contradictory but opposed real needs can only be truly engaged and overcome from the standpoint of universal world history. This can only take place from within the social antagonisms of capitalism, and not from partial, single-sided aspects of its contradictory totality.

The “workers of the world must unite” because the world is united in its self-contradiction and crisis in capitalism. The laborers must themselves take up and overcome the social relations of labor in crisis in capitalism by assuming the socialist political responsibility for capital that is eluded by capitalist politics.

Otherwise, the social conflicts in capitalism — between and among its capitalists and workers — will reproduce its contradictions forever.


DH: At the beginning of the discussion, I talked about capitalism as a form of social relations. At the end of the discussion, particularly from Chris [Cutrone] but also more broadly, we had the idea that social relations are forms of capitalism. In other words, we inverted the question. I was posing a political question and got a philosophical reply that there is an essence called capitalism and that there are appearances which are the forms of labor, social relations, and so on.

Our discussion today convinced me once again that there is indeed a problem: what is Marx’s legacy, and how does it appear? Does one work critically with Marxism? Or does one look at the world beyond Marxism and try to go further? When I first got interested in left-wing politics, the book that everyone turned to was an anthology published by C. Wright Mills in 1960, The Marxists, which presented a variety of Marxists.[3] It was quite an interesting collection. In its introduction, Mills asked a question that troubled me then and has continued to trouble me, namely, where the heck is this proletariat that is going to unlock everything, the subject-object of history that is going to make these transformations?

It seems to me that both for socioeconomic and political reasons the dilemma came to a head in a book by Andre Gorz in 1981 called Adieux au Prolétariat, not “au revoir”, but rather “adieu” — goodbye. It’s screwing us up. We are always trying to find this holy grail that is going to solve all of our problems. That brings me to a final point, namely, picking up on what Leo Panitch said, that there is a good and healthy movement that has gone from 1968 — from both of our youths, no doubt — to the present, that has gone from protest to politics.

My question is: what politics? And that’s where it seems to me that the distinction between a republican democracy and a democratic republic becomes absolutely vital. Many of my objections to Corbyn, to Sanders and to a whole cohort of radical leftists, is that they are still looking to create that democratic republic, to overcome dualism, to overcome the clash between state and society.

CN: The Left has a tendency, which is probably psychologically easy to explain, to downplay the subjective factors on our side in terms of an explanation of the unexpected longevity of the capitalist system. It is important not to write the history of failed revolutionary moments out of our attempt to understand why we are in the position we are in now. Stalinism, however you want to interpret it, the failure or dissipation of the October Revolution, is a central question to any attempt to understand where we are today.

I agree that we have seen this process of moving from protest to politics. But I wanted to return to the point Dick made: to what kind of politics? It seems to me that we need look critically at the twin poles of protest and politics — in general over the last couple decades it has been electoral politics — because although it seems protest has reached its limits, we’ve seen electoral politics reach its limits in different scenarios. We need to think about how to overcome that polarity and move to something beyond flipping from protest to electoral parliamentary politics and back again. That seems to be a cycle that we could be locked into forever, and overcoming that seems to be the main task.

SM: I believe it’s absolutely not true, in any sense, that profits have been very high. The main form of surplus value in modern capitalism — if you look at the stock market for a moment — is not profits, but rather rent. The most important form of property for the capitalist class is intellectual property, and that is precisely monopoly capital. The existence of competition in no way conflicts with the concept of monopolistic capitalism. When looking at conflicts on the state level, we have to go back to Trotsky’s proposition, in “War and the International” from 1916,[4] that the fundamental contradiction is between modern productive forces, which require organization on the world scale, and the organization of capitalism in terms of national states which is fundamental to their continued existence.

There is nothing wrong with the Marxian theory of the state as developed by Marx and by Lenin. The state is an organization of violent repression; even Max Weber called it the monopoly on legitimate violence. The public administration, which is a necessary aspect of any human society, is always subject and subordinate to the repressive function of the state. If you look at American prisons, you see that with the most developed form of the capitalist mode of production, you have the greatest imprisonment and violence against the working population.

Regarding low profits, Marx speaks of profits as one form of surplus value, with land, rent, and interest, but we see negative interest rates in the markets—even though serious debtors are subject to high interest rates, but the interest rates that capitalism receives are virtually zero or negative. Land rent, which remains very important, is not important to the major capitalists. Rather, what is important to them is intellectual property. If for example, intellectual property was nationalized, what would its value be? The stock market would be totally wiped out. There would be virtually no value in a company like Amazon or Facebook or Google. You have a system of monopoly capitalism based on intellectual property nowadays and it takes two forms in the world. Virtually the entire world is organized as either a monopoly capitalist state, for example the United States, or as state monopoly capitalism, for example China.

The other feature of the profitability fallacy is that any accounting system that we have in the world today is counted in purely financial terms. But Marx speaks of surplus value, and the value of the product is not increasing, it’s decreasing, because of what the economists call the externality. That is the assault on man’s inorganic body which more than compensates, if you wanted to do a rational economic analysis, to all of surplus value presented. The environmental destruction of the capitalist mode of production makes its profitability insignificant. The only solution is the abolition of intellectual property, and that has to come about through things like the demand for universal, free access to whatever vaccine is developed for the coronavirus, as well as a politics that emphasizes not socialism or the state but the environment. The whole series of environmental initiatives and resistances that have been sweeping the planet has to be the focus of any politics of the Left.

LP: This discussion comes down to “Philosophers will always try to understand the world; the point is to change it.”[5] There is a way to talk philosophically and abstractly about how we get to socialism, and the need for socialism, and the need for labor to transcend capital, in a completely philosophical way that does not engage in actual strategy. Marx suffers from a famous transformational problem, not only in economics, in terms of the concept of surplus value and how you take that into an understanding of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. It was a constant problem that Marx struggled with from the first volume of Capital on. It is why he didn’t actually publish Capital volumes two and three. But there’s also a transformational problem in getting from philosophy to strategy.

What I heard today — I have heard it from Platypus people constantly — is a discussion of strategy and politics, which is utterly philosophical, utterly abstract. It is conducted at the level of universal world history, rather than real concrete historical occasions and struggles, which is all the more surprising in light of the insight that capitalism is bourgeois society, and bourgeois societies are located in specific places, specific histories and specific nation states.

If we have a crisis at the moment for capitalism, a capitalist crisis, it is primarily a political crisis. It is precisely the dysfunctionality of the Trumpists that is a problem for capital. But much more important in terms of socialist strategy, to make no distinction between this Right, and the status quo capitalist-orientated parties of the Center-Left, is really to be sticking one’s head in the sand. Sure, the Democrats are orientated to reproducing capitalism — that’s true — but the crisis that the Democrats and the Labour party were thrown into by a mobilization of people calling themselves socialists in the twenty-first century is very significant.

It’s a crisis of those parties at the same level as when the Bennites emerged inside the Labour party — reflecting the New Left, the ’68 moment — in the 1970s, and it’s a crisis of the kind the Democratic party went through from 1968-72, before that was shut down. It took until 1981 to shut down the New Left in the Labour Party. If the Left is going to go anywhere, we need to have some sensitivity to the amount of scope that bourgeois democracy gives the Left to organize, and much more important — because Dick is right to ask the question, “Where is this working class?” which C. Wright Mills asked — for class formation in the twenty-first century. Without bourgeois democracy, the space is not there. Trump is different from Biden, because he doesn’t close down the space for the kind of teachers’ struggles that have taken place in the last few years. These things matter in terms of us being able to take a reformist politics and take it to become a transformative politics.

It isn’t a matter of “free stuff versus jobs,” but of universal collective goods that meet human needs. To think that Sanders and Corbyn and the people they were speaking to and the people they excited aren’t open to that discussion, that they are so blinded, that all they think about is state versus market, in the way that Chris Cutrone is putting it, strikes me as cynical.

We have hope now, precisely because we should be engaging with this new generation, this “new New Left.” In a way, yes, engaging to explain to them that the capitalist state is bourgeois to its core, but they are entirely open to a mobilization which would take this orientation to giving a positive valence to the word socialism and building on what has been done, rather than to cynically dismiss it and to dismiss it, moreover, at an abstract philosophical level, at the level of world socialist revolution.

CC: I would say first of all, that capitalism is not a social relation, it is a crisis of social relations, and it’s a contradiction of the social relations. That’s what gives it the metaphysical character of capital-ism. On the question of politics, I’m still very beholden to Marx’s original understanding of politics in capitalism, namely the class struggle, that the essential political question is the working class organized as a political force. That’s really the task, that’s the essence of politics from Marx’s perspective.

I would say that the danger especially in 2020, of the Democratic Party and of the Labour Party in the UK, is that they precisely prevent the organization of the working class as a political force. In fact, it might be easier for the working class to organize itself as a political force against the Tories and against the Republicans because they’re not dependent on the Tories or the Republicans, in the way that the workers are dependent, through existing labor organizations on the Labour Party and the Democratic Party, which prevents them from organizing into the force necessary to achieve socialism. It’s really that simple.

At a strategic level there’s no reason to believe that it’s easier for the workers to organize under the Democrats or under Labour. In fact, there’s every reason to believe that it’s more difficult, that there are more obstacles, that they’re more shackled in their ability to organize themselves under the so-called social-democratic Center-Left parties. The Democrats and Labour are not even social-democratic and they don’t deserve to be called Center Left. I’ll remind you of a famous remark of Gore Vidal, who’s a forgotten figure, a kind of gadfly, ruling class figure of the 1960s: “There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party” — the party of capital — “and it has two right wings.“[6] And we can say that of the SPD in Germany, of the Socialist Party in France and of the Labour Party in the UK as well.

LP: Chris, I entirely agree with what you just said, and all my work on the Labour party — I’ve spent much of my life dealing with this — has been to say that. But insofar as you recognize that class struggle is the central contradiction, and, you would say, the essence of capitalism, those struggles take place within the Labour Party. But what you do with that is, you don’t recognize class struggle within in the Labour Party, you gives us a categorical statement that removes class struggle from it, and you don’t try to think through what it would mean to build concrete formations.

The generation of myself, Chris Nineham and Dick Howard — you’re younger — has failed to launch new mass socialist parties. Since we recognized in the 60s that the Communist parties and Social Democratic Parties couldn’t even pretend to claim to be agencies of transformation any longer, we ran off to create a better Leninism, Maoism or socialist republicanism. “Blah blah blah.” We did not succeed. So, it’s not just a matter of standing back and saying, “Go and do it.” We need to concretely try to think through those failures as well.

CC: I agree. I would say I was just setting broad parameters. Of course, I’m not an activist. Platypus is not an activist project in that sense.

LP: Well maybe it has to be one. It is speaking constantly of the need for revolution; it needs to be activist. It can’t operate at the level of philosophical abstractions, if it speaks to class struggle.

CC: Although they haven’t found the traction they need, one thing I am very sympathetic to in the Millennial generation, is that they have understood the need to organize the as-yet unorganized. I would say that the general social intellect and intellectual property is also embodied in concrete forms of capitalist organization, including logistics and production. Amazon is not an unreal thing, it’s a very real thing that’s part of the general social intellect that needs to be re-appropriated. How you organize Amazon workers, how you organize people generally, is not just a spatial issue – we need space to do it – but it’s also a time and historical issue, meaning the old labor organizations are really not fit for the task. So, we have a problem there, in terms of the way existing labor is tied to capitalist politics. I’m not trying to downplay the problem or blithely dismiss. I’m saying that it’s very rare for people to even get a glimpse of what the task actually is.

LP: In that sense, the greatest failure of Corbyn is not that he didn’t transform the Labour party, but that it wasn’t even set as an agenda for Unite to transform itself into a force of class formation, political education, etc.

CN: The truth is, whatever you may think of the Labour Party’s potential to transform society, there is no question that a majority of people in British society feel that is the most likely way that things will be transformed. That subjectivity has to be the crucial element in any planning of a strategic way forward. It’s not actually true to say in a simple way that under a Tory regime, it’s easier to mobilize people to fight back. Another element of this calculation is that you can’t really conceive of a fundamental transformation of British society, or a radicalization of the mass of the population, until they’ve experimented with a Labour government. So, for all those reasons, the idea that we can just condemn both sides equally leads nowhere, it leads to complete isolation from the vast majority of the working population. You need to get Labour in, but you also have to understand and be honest about the limitations of getting Labour in, even if it had been a Corbyn Labour. Therefore, getting the relationship right between electoral politics and extra-parliamentary politics, and understanding the complex dynamic between them, is really essential if we’re serious about building big Lefts in parliamentary democracies.

CC: Electoralism and movementism — as Chris Nineham is raising — is a cross on which we are crucified, since the 1960s, this antinomy of electoralism and social movement activism, mostly in terms of protest movements, not really organizing civil society, but really just organizing protests.

Most Left politics in the 90s, when I first lived in Chicago in my 20s, were opposed to the introduction of “big-box” stores. For instance, anti-Walmart activism. I thought Chicago would be an ideal place to organize Walmart employees, which would then organize Walmart nationally. The resistance to Walmart took the form of both activist movement protest, NGO-style protest, especially by labor unions, and also by Democratic Party politicians, such as the city council and the aldermen.

The fact that the United States is relatively backwards with respect to social democracy, in the European model, is actually an advantage, because it means there isn’t a fully established terrain the way there is in Britain and in other western European countries, which immediately channels things in certain directions and tends to lag behind the true opportunities that capitalism presents. For instance, people resisted the replacement of small retail by “big-box” stores, rather than seeing this is the way capitalism is going and asking, what are the opportunities there?

Generally speaking, so-called social democratic politics, especially since the 1960s, have been backward-looking, and have been lagging, and in that sense have been conservative. Not just to be pejorative about it but thinking about it in terms of time and history and the way things are going. They have been conservative, which also is to a political disadvantage. Whereas the Right, the neoliberal Right, and now it includes someone like Trump in this, has been more ruthless at charting the course of capitalism, and we have to pay attention to that.

Those who depend on the Democrats have followed, in other words, the “Left,” has taken a resistance approach, and backward-looking conservative approach. Rather than thinking about what’s happening in capitalism, dynamically, that creates new opportunities and new necessities for organizing, and for politics. It’s not just neutrality. I have a special animus towards the Democrats as being particularly backward-looking and particularly conservative.

LP: If you were more of a dialectician in your actual practice, I think you would therefore see — if you have more of an animus to the Democratic Party — the importance of class struggles within in it. The point is that when Marx criticized the German Social Democratic Party as it was emerging for being statist in the “Critique of the Gotha Program,” he wasn’t telling workers to leave the German Social Democratic Party; he was engaged in a struggle in the context of it, and insofar as he had strategic capacities, then he might have expected that that would lead to new formations out of it which wouldn’t get trapped in what he was seeing as a problem, even in the early 1870s.

I’ve often thought the American Left could blow past social democracy, but it’s not going to blow past it without a class struggle within the institutions that have enveloped the class. That’s why it’s an historical problem. The best people in the DSA understand this extremely well. I was speaking to Meagan Day a year ago in Montreal, and she said, “We have no illusions about transforming the Democratic Party. We’re running on the ticket in the East Bay of a black socialist woman for state senator. She didn’t get elected. She came close. The main point was to be able to make connections with working-class activists in the East Bay — we did — and we played a good role in the teachers’ strike in Oakland last year.” That’s how concrete class struggles takes place.

CN: You have to be careful about reheating right-wing positions on social democracy, because it’s the big rhetoric in Britain about how “Jeremy Corbyn was looking back to the terrible 1970s.” In many ways, things were better for workers in the 1970s than they are now, but also, as Leo says, in the process of engaging in a real radical social democratic project, as people did around Corbynism, lots of new ideas emerge. There was the Green New Deal, for example, which couldn’t really be called a backward-looking project, but it was fairly central to the whole Corbyn operation.

The other thing is that social democracy, as a solution to the problems that workers face, as the first step that politicized workers take, is rooted into the situation. I don’t think there’s any path round it, at least in parliamentary democracies. Not in the sense that it’s the endpoint, but in a sense that most people will have to go through some form of the experience of understanding its strengths and limitations. We need a working class that is conscious of the strengths and weaknesses of social democracy and that involves not just denouncing it — you cannot just denounce it to a handful of people on the sidelines — it means taking people through that experience, while at the same time critiquing it and being honest.

SM: The term “Left” is essentially an expression of a continuum within a single process, and therefore it is fundamentally a part of the capitalist state. I much prefer the term radical. Corbyn and Sanders are good representations of what social democracy is today. As a Left-social-democrat, Corbyn managed to completely capitulate to the capitalist press. Sanders was going along with moderate liberalism. The Democratic party is a capitalist institution. Left social democracy is social-democratic. No one, except Stalin, is more responsible for the victory of Hitler than the Left anti-war social-democrat Rudolph Hilferding. We should not think of ourselves as Left because when we do so, there is no “we.” You have a lot of individuals with various progressive or good social attitudes, but there is no Left.

What is needed is a radical movement that comes spontaneously from the various non-Left sectors of the population — that is, the working class — in response to immediate environmental issues, which naturally goes together to form a universal environmental movement. Far more than anything that Corbyn or Sanders represent, is what is represented by Greta Thunberg, who, at the moment, is probably the leader of radicalism in the world, because she has a response to the basic problem of society and the human race today, namely, the threat of global environmental disaster or catastrophe of a fundamental sort.

The struggle of employees against the oppressive conditions imposed by capitalism is inherent. As Warren Buffet said, “Of course there is a class struggle, and we have won it.” That is, the boast is that the ideological fragmentation and loss of the working class is a completely free field for capitalism.

CC: One reason why we might resist the Democrats in particular is the culture wars and what Shane was just talking about: the ideological division and fragmentation of the working class. The way that the Left, not the working class, but the Left as an ideological phenomenon, is beholden to Democrats and the Labour party is precisely through the culture wars ideology, which divides the working class and writes off people who vote for the Tories or Trump as beyond the pale — as culturally beyond the pale, as people they are not trying to reach in terms of organization and politicization. That is one major way in which the so-called social democratic or Center-Left parties are an obstacle to what needs to be done.

SM: The question was posed, “Does capitalism have a future?” The answer is, no, it does not. Capital has no future. The environmental crisis of the planet is the thing that radical people need to think about first of all, not the internal distribution of wealth within a society. Without a fundamental social change, that is, the elimination of the capitalist mode of production as a dominant social form, we will all be dead very soon.

Transcribed by Patrick Unwin, Jonny Black and Wentai Xiao

Edited by Grant Tyler and Efraim Carlebach

[1] Dick Howard, The Marxian Legacy (Palgrave Macmillan; 3rd ed. 2019).

[2] Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, trans. Martin Milligan (Prometheus Books, 1988), pp. 73, available online at <>.

[3] C. Wright Mills, The Marxists (Dell Publishing, 1962).

[4] Leon Trotsky, War and the International,(Golos, November 1914). First published in English as The Boisheviki and World Peace (New York: Boni & Liveright, 1918), available online at <>.

[5] Paraphrase from Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” Karl Marx, Marx/Engels Selected Works, Volume One (Progress Publishers, 1969)13–15. <>

[6] Gore Vidal, “The State of the Union,” Esquire, (May 1975), available online at <>