Marxism without revolution: repost

by John Quiggin on May 8, 2018

It was the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx a couple of days ago. I planned to repost my series from 2011 on “Marxism without Revolution”, but didn’t get to it. I was reminded when Matt Yglesias mentioned it on Twitter, so here it is, in three parts.




Alan White 05.09.18 at 12:15 am

Thank you so much for this–my last primary-source Marx was in grad school long ago. And being a knucklehead about meaningful economics, of course I have little useful criticism. But I do have a question about these four bullet points you made in your first essay:

reimposition of control over the financial system

restoration of a progressive tax structure, combined with a more vigorous assault on international tax evasion/avoidance

shifting the burden of ‘austerity’ back to those responsible for the crisis, and rejection of cuts to the welfare state

repeal of anti-union laws and measures to make union organization easier

which you characterize as as basis for resistance against the 1%. But it seems at least in the US that Trump has managed to leverage the blind loyalty of under a third of voters to roll back any advance on every one of these points. When you factor in the wave of conservative federal lifetime-appointed judges his administration is putting in place, and the relative vapidness of Democratic candidates to seize hold of Congress any time soon, I’d like to hear what you think about the prospects for gains rather than even more losses on these. I also wish to say that your identification of these specific points in 2011 as pivotal was, well, impressive to me! (BTW I’m a Wisconsinite, so in my state the rollback on these very points has been a microcosmic double-down.) Thanks again for this repost.


Z 05.09.18 at 8:27 am

I’m very glad that the 200th anniversary of Marx (and the 150th anniversary of Das Kapital) didn’t go unnoticed here! Even though I think the answers he gave to the questions he himself raised were quite dramatically wrong (class struggle is not the engine of history, material infrastructure does not determine ideological superstructure, the Proletariat is not the historically determining class etc…), I’m a huge admirer of Marx’s intellectual contributions (and I think I would be one even if his complete works were Thesen über Feuerbach).

On a completely different note, I think that in view of the Sanders campaign and Corbyn’s Labour (among others) this paragraph from you Class post has aged quite well!

There is no obvious political vehicle for [an effective political movement that would mobilise the direct interests of the 80 per cent or so of the population who are losing ground]. The social democratic parties (not to mention the US Democratic Party) seem either hopelessly compromised or ineffective, while the Greens seem to be stuck as a permanent minority. But there have been plenty of radical realignments of political party structures in the past, and they often happen just when they seem least likely.


MCMC'M' 05.09.18 at 1:31 pm

Then it’s a good thing Marx never said any of those things. Dead for over 130 years and people still misread him via his various vulgarizers, especially Cohen et al approvingly cited in the OP reposts. For proof of that, re-read those theses you mention.

Regarding the OP, I’m surprised that JQ can repost those entries without any kind of revision,and especially without responding to the criticisms made by Hidari and others in the comment threads. Just talking to any scholar who actually takes Marx seriously and actually reads him–rather than the group around Cohen who reduced Marx to a crude historical determinist, an espousrer of vulgar economism, and technocrat–would have cleared up several of the misconceptions that JQ and others have.

Consider this essay by Harry Cleaver:

It undermines several claims that JQ makes about Marx: that his analysis is one of hard economic determinism, or that he any theory of a “final” crisis, or an analysis of capitalist crisis as a merely economic event and not an immanently political one.

Basically, if you were planning on retreading this topic seven years after your original posts, a little bit more reflection would have been nice.


Glen Tomkins 05.09.18 at 3:18 pm

You can’t have Marxism without revolution. It’s like having a religion without God. But the religion can definitely be sort of like Judaism in exile, in that it can be a religion that sets its face against priests and idols and all other religious mumb0jumbo. You can have an atheistic religion (and that is exactly how gentile observers in ancient times saw Judaism, as morbid atheism), and today socialists constitute the political tendency most rigidly opposed to bringing guns into politics.

It’s a mistake to insist that revolution has to mean that the ex-rulers have to be lined up against a wall and shot. They had to do that to Louis XVI and Nichols II because they were rulers who couldn’t abdicate or be deposed, so there could be no new source of order until and unless the old sovereigns were done away with. Wilhelm II though, could quite safely be packed off to exile in Holland, without the least danger that religion-beset masses would return him and any sort of ancien regime to power. Trump could be 25thed with even less heartache, even among his idiot supporters.

Marx saw more deeply than his contemporaries past the reigning political theory of the day, the idea that govt derives its authority from classes or “estates”. Of course all sorts of thinkers disagreed with this scheme as a theoretical ideal, but it was pretty much unchallenged as the theory of how political authority worked in practice. The lower classes deferred to the higher, and the very highest were guided, not by the love of money that guided the Third Estate, but by the higher callings of martial virtue and love of wisdom (which of course, I a tradition coming out of the Dark Ages, meant religion). Marx saw that that was ridiculous, that of curse the nobility and the various churches observed the Golden Rule of politics, “They that have the gold make the rules.”

What Marx didn’t see, or didn’t want to get into in order to not clutter his theoretical structure with considerations beyond its basic mechanics, was that the revolution in govt would be driven by collapse of the ancient regime’s rationale for control by supposedly higher orders of society, long before we reached the crisis of the working class reduced to below starvation wages. The golden rule of politics would permit ever more transparent exploitation of the workers by the owners, and that transparency would destroy the moral authority of the upper classes long before the exploitation’s material depredations got anywhere near starving the workers.

Plato saw this more deeply than Marx. It’s the loss of the aristocracy’s moral authority when it becomes a plutocracy that leads to revolution. The lower orders understand money-grubbing. It has no mystical authority with them, it’s just what you have to do to survive. When the supposedly higher orders become transparently money-grubbers, when the successful pursuit of wealth becomes how the aristocracy competes within itself for dominance in a plutocracy, then that plutocracy has killed itself by destroying its moral authority. It no longer enjoys the authority granted by mystical mumbo-jumbo to the effect that the aristocracy is possessed of any sort of valor or wisdom not granted to mere money-grubbers.

The socialist revolution occurred throughout the industrialized world in the decades around the turn of the century a hundred years ago. This did not require lining any of the former rulers up against walls and shooting them, or tumbreling them off to guillotines, because there was no longer any moral authority in their persons. A dictatorship of the proletariat took a power that Marx thought of as extraordinary and emergent, from the aristocracies that were discredited and dethroned, but whose governance Marx never was able to free himself of thinking as the ordinary and ongoing govt. The “dictatorship” of the proletariat became the ordinary parliamentary govt, and its program of progressive taxation and social insurance and university education available to all achieved “from each according to his means to each according to his needs” and a classless society — to within a reasonable tolerance.

Of course there has been considerable backsliding since about two generations ago. You have to leave Marx behind to understand that, but Plato still tells us what that means and why that happened. Democracy, after a generation or two, loses its founding mission of overthrowing aristocracy. Once that is gone, it has no stable and enduring story, no source of order it tells itself it is imposing on an inherently chaotic world. So the democratic electorate careens from one of the old myths of order in society to another, in rapid and uncontrolled succession. This lack of narrative drive frightens many, and prompts them to project back on the past a mythical golden age when society was ordered according to some or other principle of order, or combination thereof, that is sadly lacking its due respect in these fallen times.

That is where we are now. We have our Rs (here in the US, which I am most familiar with, so shall use for purposes of exposition) who win elections based on the anxiety at the lack of a solid pack of mystical BS sources of order in governance. Then we have our Ds, who try to carry on with the origin story of democracy, that we should structure what govt does based on the absence of classes and their privilege, but who can’t and won’t reject any of the mystical sources of order the Rs use categorically, because we believe in all and none of them ourselves. Neither party can muster itself behind any fixed program of actual public policy, and in the absence of effective governance, the owners are left with a free field to reassert the golden rule of politics. We all are encouraged to think of ourselves as potential megabillionaires, if only we strive and self-promote relentlessly enough.

Of course democracy stands at the brink of tyranny. Anxiety over the lack of order — again this lack is narrative and mystical, not concrete and physical, as if Sharia law actually made big chunks of London off limits to Anglos — makes people willing to flirt with violent revolution and tyranny as the only escape possible back to order. The only people left who are at all categorically loyal to democracy are those of us who still think of it as the force that overthrew the plutocracy, socialists, basically. It’s the permanent, institutionalized, revolution by which we could get closer and closer to the ideals of socialism, and adapt govt to changing technology (e.g., medical care has developed from being as much an optional luxury as astrology, to the point that it should now be considered a human right) but we can’t get the electorate behind any program any more with any continuity and persistence.


engels 05.09.18 at 3:59 pm

Adam Tooze’s FT essay provides a bracing counterblast to Quiggin’s and Z’s backhanded compliments:


bruce wilder 05.09.18 at 5:54 pm

thanks for re-posting this

I thought your short essays were on target and it was also interesting to browse thru the comments.


NomadUK 05.09.18 at 6:52 pm

I just wanted to take a moment to note my enjoyment of the nested link to John Quiggin’s earlier post here, dating from 2005, in which one can nostalgically revel in a comments section featuring a defence by Slocum (a name I haven’t seen here in a very long time) of the US invasion of Iraq, together with ajay’s contribution of what must surely be one of the top 10 comments in the history of the Internet:

They’re Islamists, dude, not nihilists. Say what you like about the tenets of militant Islam, but at least it’s a belief system.

Good times.


bob mcmanus 05.09.18 at 7:05 pm

Jordy Rosenberg interviews Kay Gabriel

Marxism in the 21st Century is about where it was 125 years ago, inspiring and guiding some of those who want to change the world, being called passe and unscientific by those who think conditions and analysis just need a little tweaking.

“KG: My fidelity to SRT lies in the premise articulated by Silvia Federici that the production of the sphere of unwaged reproductive labour grounds the formal subsumption of labour as a species of ongoing primitive accumulation differentiated via gender. In your own highly generative phrase, this sphere is capitalism’s “hiddener abode.” Entering it signals the theoretical attempt to articulate determinately the constitutive unevenness of the social. But on the one hand Federici fails to theorize the problem of scale—the historical relation, for instance, between colonialism and the ideological gendered division of labor in the imperial core, or their continued articulation in the present. This is just to say that to invoke unwaged labour in the Americas is always to initiate a confrontation with the history of chattel slavery and its reverberations in the present—say in the form of the mass incarceration of black men. On the other hand, Federici slams into the theoretical limit I broached above, the relationship that transsexuals bear towards both labor and the reproduction of labor-power. I think a rejoinder to both these limitations of this particular form of Marxist feminism can be found in a commitment to theorizing how the social and economic positions of some women depend on the exploitation and immiseration of others, which also serves as a rebuttal to the residue of transphobic feminism that obstructs this kind of theoretical endeavour in the first place

PS:I think the MY twitter thread is perfect. “Marxism is white and male.” Probably couldn’t talk to that person, but likely more constructive and enlightening working with her than anything likely to come up here.


bob mcmanus 05.09.18 at 7:06 pm


J-D 05.10.18 at 12:31 am

The existence of those structures mean that a relatively simple set of feasible political demands, primarily involving reversal of the losses of the past few decades, could form a basis for political opposition to the rule of the top 1 per cent. The key elements are fairly obvious, and include

reimposition of control over the financial system
restoration of a progressive tax structure, combined with a more vigorous assault on international tax evasion/avoidance
shifting the burden of ‘austerity’ back to those responsible for the crisis, and rejection of cuts to the welfare state
repeal of anti-union laws and measures to make union organization easier

Is Marxism essential to reaching this conclusion? If not, is Marxism helpful to reaching this conclusion?


otpup 05.10.18 at 1:25 am

Reading the 2011 Capital comment thread, I felt what a shame that the Mike Beggs perspective on Kapital (though JQ, you may adhere to it) was not presented (was it 5 years later that Beggs wrote in Jacobin giving his contextualization of the arguments in DK?). Though I suppose too it would have been a deflection away from the OP’s intended goal.


ccc 05.10.18 at 8:28 am

Wish for the next 200 years: Forever drop the Marxism label


Z 05.10.18 at 9:56 am

Adam Tooze’s FT essay provides a bracing counterblast to Quiggin’s and Z’s backhanded compliments

OK, evidently, I failed to communicate my intentions and my formulation was faulty. So let me try again.

I’m in awe of Marx’s contributions to philosophy and sociology. I consider critical materialism (as in The German Ideology), his historical analysis of Class and class struggle (as in The Communist Manifesto or Le 18 Brumaire) and his sociological analysis of Capitalism (as in The Capital) to be major breakthroughs in the history of ideas, miles ahead of what came before (and of a lot of what came after). Sometimes, I find him in error but my ability to do so stems from his very insights to begin with and the analytical tools they provided (just like, thanks to the development of the very theory he developed, I can see that Darwin was wrong to believe that whales were descended from bears).


Z 05.10.18 at 9:59 am

I just wanted to take a moment to note my enjoyment of the nested link to John Quiggin’s earlier post here, dating from 2005

Yeah, I browsed that thread too, and I fond it funny (though in a rather grim way) that when Uncle Kvetch went for rhetorical purpose to a hyperbolic description of the absolute worse that could ever come out of the Iraq invasion, he came up with the pretty accurate though a little too optimistic

Slocum, I’m convinced that there is nothing–absolutely nothing–that could happen in Iraq that would make you consider the operation a failure. A full-scale civil war could break out tomorrow, lasting 10 years and killing a million Iraqi civilians, and at the end of those 10 years you’d still be here, excorating the naysayers and talking about purple fingers and turned corners and lights at the ends of various tunnels and “Those civilian casualty figures seem grossly inflated to me, anyway….”


casmilus 05.10.18 at 10:15 am


The best thing about that article is that I’d have to subscribe to the Financial Times to read it. I choose ignorance.


Ikonoclast 05.10.18 at 10:45 am

This is a re-post of a blog comment I put on John Quiggin’s site. It has been slightly rewritten.

MCMC’M’ has linked to Harry Cleaver’s paper “Karl Marx: Economist or Revolutionary?” The paper is offered as an intended critique, by MCMC’M’ not by Cleaver, of J.Q.’s three linked essays. Cleaver’s paper is interesting and well worth reading. It doesn’t necessarily rebut J.Q.’s general line of thinking and it draws a rather long bow in trying to retain or rehabilitate the theory of TRPF (Tendency of Rate of Profit to Fall).

The substantive point Cleaver makes is valid. Work is being obsoleted by technological progress. He sees the impulse for this progress, via machinery and automation, as coming from worker resistance in the form of demands for higher wages and less hours. If the worker wants more money for a shorter day then replace him with a machine. This is true enough although there are further impetuses for technological progress such as environmental pressure and competition for the consumer dollar via better products, seemingly better products and mass advertising efforts. Cleaver’s attempt to formulate the obsoleting of work as the fundamental form of TRPF law is beguiling. It is ingenious at one level and a bit baffling at another. It gives one a feeling that a fallacy has been slipped through at some point in the reasoning, perhaps as a category mistake. Anyway, his substantive point is much more important than the academic debate over TRPF as a law or a tendency.

The issue of what happens to work is an important point in all these analyses. It appears in Marx and Keynes and reappears in Quiggin and Cleaver. The actual point of convergence is to do with the progress, especially the technological progress, towards the obsolescence of work. I think it would be fair to say that all four thinkers see this in a positive light as the removal of onerous, uncreative work as a disutility and impost on workers. Instead of laboring under conditions and at tasks which harm or limit the worker and stifle his capacities, especially as happens under mass production capitalism, the worker will be freed to become more creative or just enjoy free time.

There are a few problems with this idea and the above-mentioned thinkers may deal with these issues in other writings, I don’t know. From an evolutionary point of view, we evolved under conditions where work was necessary. I mean work as any physical or mental activity necessary for survival or social / cultural reasons. If it needs calories to to fuel it, it is work.

The need for work is encoded in our DNA so to speak. This is not to say that there is any biological need for capitalist forms of work, which would be an absurd contention, but there is a biological need for work as such. Why is walking so beneficial? We evolved as nomadic hunter-gatherers. We covered distances on an almost daily basis to find food and shelter. A biological system evolved for an activity needs that activity or a good substitute and suffers when it does not perform it.

It is bad to pen large great white sharks in large aquariums. They soon die. It is bad to pen killer whales in large aquariums. They become ill, behaviourally disturbed and aggressive in new ways beyond their standard predator aggression which requires ranges of hundreds of kilometers at least. Humans are more adaptable perhaps but still suffer when penned into offices or in underground coal mines for that matter.

Even the human immune system needs work. Freed from the necessity to work hard against pathogens by us living in more sterile and less “epidemic” conditions the immune system turns on the body in the form of allergies and auto immune diseases. At least, this is one of the current theories about the increase of such diseases. This is not an argument to do away with immunization, sterilizing or antibiotics. It is certainly an argument to not over-use the latter two.

Coming back to work for survival or a tolerable existence be it hunter-gathering, agriculture, industrial work or office work, what happens when humans are freed from all necessity to work? It turns out that we are left with creative work and recreation as work. This simply creates a new kind of existential crisis and again is no ultimate solution to the human condition. Some are happy in this new existential position and some are not. Some can be become profoundly unhappy when the only new options, enforced by default, are creation or recreation.

We only have to look at the the old aristocracy, specifically the Whig aristocracy because they were the small “l” liberals of their time, to note the following. Their constructive options were reproduction work (getting the heirs), direct creative work like that of natural philosopher and scientist Henry Cavendish or using wealth to pay for artists and landscape designers to do the creating. Enjoyment of wealth and idleness for their own sake only goes so far. Idleness is only truly enjoyable and healthy when it counterpoints periods of work or other purposeful activity. Otherwise, the options are destructive, involving excesses of hedonism, libertinism and dissipation.

The Tories may be counterpointed to the Whigs. The Tories were mere landed gentry with some possessions but not the great wealth of the Whigs. What of the Tory social position and attitude? This is still very much among us today. It is my observation that many workers, of the working class and middle class semi-professionals to professionals, effectively become Tories if and when they become self-funded retirees. The self-funded retiree is the current apotheosis of the worker freed from work. What do he and she become? There are positive aspects and it would be wrong to pass over them. Less stress and more personal creative fulfillment might be one aspect. The opportunities to grandparent and do community work are other aspects.

At this stage however (and it might be as a manifestation of this stage of capitalism) one sees many drift to the right politically. Many become Tories if they were not so already. They support the LNP in Australia. They become in effect petite bourgeois surviving on self-funded income, so-called. They become a little bit like landed gentlemen and gentlewomen, though their land is usually of semi-rural acreage size or hobby farm size. The land is rarely truly productive and any production is heavily subsidised by investment income plus tax breaks and other incentives given to this class to buy their vote.

Like the petty landed gentry of old, they have a comfortable home and a coach and four. A coach and four? You don’t believe me? They have a huge caravan and the horses up front are in the form of a five litre diesel or petrol 4WD. This assemblage performs the same function for this new landed gentry as coach and four did for the old. They are not creative enough to entertain themselves at home. They are not wealthy enough to do extensive aesthetic improvements on their property or to acquire much more land to improve. Sitting at home would expose their existential emptiness. So they most be on the move. Visiting relatives in another part of the country. Visiting man-made and natural wonders. The excitement of being on the move and seeing new things is an occupation. It artificially enforces forms of work: planning, navigation, driving, camping, hiking, sight-seeing. What will happen to this fun when it gets automated? For most of this can be automated. The first four can conceivably be automated now or in the near future.

In summary, I am saying what happens when working man and woman, institutionalised under capitalism as workers, are freed? They become free to contemplate their essential existential emptiness or to paper it over with non-purposive recreation. This could be one fate. And some of the new petty gentry find limits to their creativity and to their ability to self allocate constructive and fulfilling tasks and recreations. Not everyone can be a Gerald Murnane or a James Gleeson. Most of us are not gifted with nearly so much creativity.

Not everyone is happy to make wobbly clay pots, sew folk quilts and plant cottage gardens or native plants. Those who are, are modest, folk-wise, lucky souls who do less environmental damage. Other diversions mentioned above, like the caravan and 4WD as coach and four are very damaging environmentally, especially when these things become mass entertainments.

How will people freed from work learn to have more modest expectations? They will need to do this not because of a lack of productivity when machines take over but because of environmental limitations on recreation rather than on production or because of internal creative limitations. These latter are real and are not always conditioned limitations. They will need to have more modest expectations since when they become free to discover themselves they might discover they are not much. At least, that has been my experience.


engels 05.10.18 at 5:47 pm

I choose ignorance.

Commendably consistent!


SusanC 05.10.18 at 6:50 pm

@Glen Tomkins : Thanks, that was a very interesting comment.

There’s something in a bot reminiscent of Weber’s “The Three Types of Legitimate Rule”. If someone is King or Queen because they inherited the crown, then replacing them tends to involve an execution. (Consider, e.g. English history around Lady Jane Grey, or Mary Queen of Scots). On the other hand, if some guy is President of the United States because the people voted for him .. well, they can vote for someone else next time, the Vice President etc. can use the procedure set out in the 25th amendment etc,

On the other hand, given the comparison to Plato’s Republic you’ve set up, comparing the 25th amendment to a revolution is the wrong way around. Sure, the President gets replaced by a different President, but the system remains in the same phase. The transition to Tyrany in the style of Plato’s Republic is exactly the opposite, where the VP etc. attempt to depose a populist authoritarian tyrant, and somehow fail .. and then we’re in the next phase of Plato’s Republic.

P.S. I don’t think that Trump has either the inclination or the smarts to pull off the kind of authoritarian takeover outlined in the Republic .. you’ll need a different President for that.


John Quiggin 05.11.18 at 1:13 am

@5 Given that the Tooze piece is paywalled, maybe you could summarize the key points.


F. Foundling 05.11.18 at 7:54 am

@Ikonoclast 05.10.18 at 10:45 am
>The need for work is encoded in our DNA so to speak. …. I mean work as any physical or mental activity necessary for survival or social / cultural reasons.

So you mean work as anything we’re forced to do, as opposed to feel like doing. So it is encoded in our DNA that we need to do things that we don’t feel like doing, and need to be forced to do things. This is the exact opposite of how DNA encoding usually works: if something is inherently good from an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense to encode it in our DNA to feel like doing it. Now, it may happen that some of our DNA-encoded preferences no longer correspond to what is beneficial under new environmental conditions; but a DNA-encoded *general need for going against (DNA-encoded) preferences as such*, basically innate masochism, makes no sense whatsoever.

>Some can be become profoundly unhappy when the only new options, enforced by default, are creation or recreation. … And some of the new petty gentry find limits to their creativity and to their ability to self allocate constructive and fulfilling tasks and recreations. Not everyone can be a Gerald Murnane or a James Gleeson. Most of us are not gifted with nearly so much creativity.

The solution is education, including a habit of self-discipline. This is not about innate talent, and your achievements don’t have to be exceptionally good. When you have been forced all your life, it is clear that you may find yourself unadjusted to freedom. Prisoners have experienced this; that’s not an argument for prison and its naturalness, and has nothing to do with DNA. I really wouldn’t worry about this as the main problem of our day and age or the near future – especially since there are powerful political forces that are currently working to minimise retirement as we know it and to make sure that almost everybody is forced to work until they are either dead or at least extremely sick.


engels 05.11.18 at 10:06 am

Marx and Engels were far from alone in their criticism of the effects of the industrial revolution. But whereas many of their contemporaries reacted by opting out, seeking salvation in utopian communities, the two Germans remained true to their upbringing in Hegel’s philosophy: there was no escape from history and its logic. The two men wagered that the revolutionary transformation of capitalism would come not from without, but from within. For all its terrible side effects, the enormous dynamic of industrial development could not be suppressed or sidestepped. It would have to be transcended.


Despite Marx’s feverish activity in the reading room of the British Museum, the pace of events outran him. By 1858 the rebound was already in full swing. His effort to grasp in real time the first crisis of global capitalism resulted in a mass of notes later known to aficionados as the Grundrisse or “Groundwork”, but no finished analysis. Marx knew that he would have to dig deeper. As revolutionary ardour dampened and in the 1860s, the world entered the age of Bismarck, blood and iron and realpolitik, Marx set himself to the analysis of capitalism’s inner workings, concocting a unique synthesis of economic theory, empirical data drawn from factory inspector reports and economic history all mixed with Hegel’s dialectical logic. The result was not economics as we know it, so much as an analysis of how capitalist production and exchange, down to the commodity form itself, gave rise to a world of appearances that conventional economics then sought more or less naively to explain.


What makes returning to the original Marx worthwhile for Liedman is the conceit that with the passing of the 20th-century era of welfare states and Soviet communism, the world of globalised free-market capitalism we inhabit today has much in common with the world about which Marx wrote in the mid-19th century. “It is the Marx of the 19th century,” he tells us, “who can attract the people of the twenty-first”. What speaks to us today is the true Marx of the mid-Victorian period, not the traduced Marx of the 20th-century state ideologies. This historical ellipse from the first, Victorian age of globalisation to the present is seductive, but it ignores the uncomfortable reality of the 20th century, whose legacies include not only the failure of Soviet communism, but also China’s formidable state capitalism, American hyperpower and the existential threat of climate change. It hardly seems likely that Marx would have approved of such a historical sleight of hand. Rather than relying on casual historical analogies, Marx would surely have insisted on the need to stare the full drama of our current situation in the face and in doing so we can indeed take inspiration from his pioneering effort to make sense of both the political failure of 1848 and the economic crisis of 1857.

In 2013, in the wake of another global crisis of capitalism, another European economist published a comprehensive account of recent economic history. Thomas Piketty named his book Capital too. If you read Piketty and Marx back to back, you will not be surprised that generation after generation of readers have been drawn back to Marx. Even the best 21st-century social science pales beside the complexity and richness of Marx’s protean, 19th-century thought, to which Liedman’s readable biography provides a comprehensive and reliable guide.


Louis N. Proyect 05.11.18 at 11:57 am

Nothing would make me happier than if the anodyne social democratic formulas of the Crooked Timber collective materialized. Who wouldn’t want to live in something like Sweden circa 1965, especially a rice farmer in Haiti, a 13 year old slave picking cacao beans in the Ivory Coast, or someone working for Foxconn.

Unfortunately, that is totally excluded based on class relations globally. It is one thing to dismiss Marx’s ideas as dated but Marxism did not terminate as a means of analysis with the publication of V. 1 of Capital. The arrival of social democracy in Sweden is joined at the hip with the super-exploitation of the global South. If you go to Whole Foods loading up your cart with avocados and other organic goodies or order a smart phone from Amazon, there is suffering on the other end that can only be relieved by revolutionary struggle.

The long term tendency of the class struggle globally is toward increasingly violent conflicts such as the one taking place in Syria, where farmers were ruined during a drought that lasted through the 2000s and was likely an outcome of climate change.

As Willy Loman said, “The Woods are Burning!”


bob mcmanus 05.11.18 at 1:27 pm

Aww, the hell with Marx. To me it is like reading Ricardo or Faraday or JS Mill, they’re ok…I don’t know, maybe somebody else can defend reading the classics. In any case, focusing on Marx definitely leaves leftists up to being accused of cultism and excess reverence and dogmatism.

Anwar Shaikh Capitalism: Competition, Conflict, Crisis and John Smith Imperialism in the 21st Century:Globalization, Super-Exploitation, and Capitalism’s Final Crisis are two of the best Marxian economics books I have recently read. Numbers and graphs and algebra and stuff. Enzo Traverso’s Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History, and Memory us a nice work of Western Marxism, focusing on Benjamin and Gramsci and the loss of hope.

Was turned on to a South African (exile to Glasgow) this week, Hillel Ticktin. Two books focused on racism and the failures of State Capitalism in the USSR.

This paper, The Permanent Crisis, Decline and
Transition of Capitalism
summer 2017 is very good, although bog-std to me.


SusanC 05.11.18 at 2:04 pm

After writing that executing the outgoing leader is characteristic of absolute monarchy, not parliamentary democracies, I realised that Tony Blair is almost an exception. Of course, he’s still alive and not even being held in the Tower of London … but it’s notable that there were widespread calls for him to face war crimes charges over Iraq etc. While other leaders just get voted out, a lot of the Labour membership were minded to give Blair the Russian Tsar treatment.

As noted upthread, most of the modern left — including the Corbynite left — does not believe in revolution anymore. Well, apart from hanging Tony Blair.


Ikonoclast 05.11.18 at 11:32 pm

F. Foundling,

I may not have made my ideas clear enough. What I meant was this. A physiological system which has evolved to do work in the physics sense can suffer harm if not worked enough or in the right way. It can also be harmed if worked too much or in the wrong way. Horses, whales and people all need certain forms of physical exercise. Likewise, a brain system which has evolved to do mental work (which is just very complicated physical work in the brain) needs stimulation and mental work if it is not to become disordered.

What we evolved to do, like gather food for example, entailed actions like walking. If someone lies in bed and has all their food brought to them, we discover that they need not only food for healthy life but also exercise. In evolutionary terms, we were forced by external nature to do various things to survive. In response, our body developed methods to force us to do things to survive. These “forcings” are not all pleasant. Pain, agony, hunger are all forcings and probably at least as important in evolutionary development as pleasure. Hume notes that most pleasures are fairly short lived but agony can be much long lasting. Pain is probably more important as a motivator than pleasure by a considerable margin.

Removing all work and social obligation from humans will harm them. I mean work in the widest sense. Surfing as recreation and unpaid craftwork are still work. However, there is more to it than that. We evolved to get strong motivations from necessity. It is harder to get strong motivations when everything is easy and voluntary. We removed nature’s forcing and replaced it by social forcing. Some socialist utopian visions seem to envisage that there will be no social forcing, but there will have to be for a number of reasons. Some motivation has to come from outside. Some forcing has to be applied to people who even in a socialist uptopia will want to harm or neglect others or just be totally selfish and freeloaders.

Capitalism is an unjust power system which forces working people (and the unemployed) to do what the capitalists want them to do. But people freed from physical wants will still need social forcings of some types. Formally work-less socialism (no economic work) will have to grapple with that. Mutual criticism and social criticism of poor sharers in a collective (for example) will still be necessary. The criminal type, the “lumpen proletarian” type will still be among us. Indeed, we will continually find elements of these failings in ourselves and we must accept social discipline of some kind even in socialism. Compulsions to do some work, be of some use to others and to not be totally selfish will still exist.


F. Foundling 05.12.18 at 5:09 am

As for revolution in the sense of a violent illegal overthrow of the established order – certainly, violence is an unpleasant thing, and I certainly wouldn’t object to obtaining control of the means of production by means of a democratic vote rather than violence, once a majority has been convinced to support such a change. I mean, what socialist *would* object, if that were to happen to be possible? The thing is – I find it extremely unlikely that, should such a democratic majority become available or even appear close to possible, the ruling class would allow such a development to proceed peacefully without launching some sort of coup and an abolishment of democracy, thereby making violence and revolution inevitable. Western democracy is tolerated, because it is easily manipulatable and relatively toothless; if it ever stops being easily manipulatable and relatively toothless, it will no longer be tolerated.

Until the modern period, elites opposed democracy, because they assumed, quite reasonably, that as soon as the exploited got the right to vote, they would act in their own intrests and immediately expropriate the property of their exploiters; as far as I remember, that became quite clear from the Putney debates. Or, at the very least, they would cancel all debts, which, if my memory of Thucydides serves me right, was indeed often the first thing to happen when the democratic faction in a given Greek city-state ceased power. Nowadays, it has been amply demonstrated that it is perfectly possible to have a democracy and yet to convince the electorate to vote systematically against its own interests.

@ Glen Tomkins 05.09.18 at 3:18 pm

>The “dictatorship” of the proletariat became the ordinary parliamentary govt, and its program of progressive taxation and social insurance and university education available to all achieved “from each according to his means to each according to his needs” and a classless society — to within a reasonable tolerance.

Wow. No. That’s not what ‘classless’ means, and this is not a matter of degree, but of kind. Your masters never stopped being your masters. Figuratively speaking, you never dethroned your king, you just had a really kind and merciful one (well, he had his reasons to be merciful). And now that the jovial old monarch lies in the grave, you are stuck with his ruthless and deranged son, and can only crouch under his whip.

Even Sweden in its most social-democratic period wasn’t free from the evils of inequality and of a plutocratic elite; not to mention the rest of Europe, the UK and the States. I mean, it may be advantageous to think that one’s desirable goal has already existed within living memory, but that compromise system did have its problems, and, importantly, contained within its very basis the seeds of its own forthcoming destruction.


John Quiggin 05.12.18 at 10:34 am

Louis @22 “If you go to Whole Foods loading up your cart with avocados and other organic goodies or order a smart phone from Amazon, there is suffering on the other end that can only be relieved by revolutionary struggle.”

Most US avocadoes are imported from Mexico, and iPhones largely from China, I believe

Both have had revolutions that succeeded in destroying the pre-existing state fairly thoroughly, and producing long-running rule by revolutionary parties, but not in ending exploitation and suffering. Why do you think future revolutions will succeed in these terms, when all previous revolutions have failed?


Louis N. Proyect 05.12.18 at 11:54 am

Why do you think future revolutions will succeed in these terms, when all previous revolutions have failed?

It all goes back to Marx (and Engels) who anticipated revolutions taking place not in Mexico or Czarist Russia but in Germany, the USA, Great Britain, et al. Even Lenin regarded the USSR as doomed unless Western Europe was transformed. The capitalist powers were able to use their superior economic and military leverage to force capitalism on these countries.

I saw this first hand as the president of the board of Tecnica, a technical aid project for Sandinista Nicaragua. This was a bid to build an alternative to Stalinism and to neoliberalism but it failed, not because revolution was an ill-conceived project but because Reagan made the country “cry uncle”.

At any rate, the contradictions of capitalist anarchy will dictate revolutionary upheavals in the capitalist heartlands in the years to come. In fact, the ultraright manifestations of it throughout Europe and the USA are contradictory manifestations of the old order having exhausted itself just like feudalism did in an earlier epoch.


F. Foundling 05.12.18 at 3:03 pm

@F. Foundling 05.12.18 at 5:09 am
>when the democratic faction in a given Greek city-state ceased power

*Seized* power.


F. Foundling 05.12.18 at 3:31 pm

@Ikonoclast 05.11.18 at 11:32 pm

>Likewise, a brain system which has evolved to do mental work … in the physical sense … needs stimulation and mental work. We evolved to get strong motivations from necessity. It is harder to get strong motivations when everything is easy and voluntary.

I disagree. We are perfectly capable of coming up with voluntary mental ‘work’ for ourselves without being strongly motivated by necessity. I certainly am, thank you very much. Of course, reality being what it is, there will always be cases where the work that *needs* to be done is more or less different from the work that the individual *wants* to do, so I do mostly agree with you that:

>Mutual criticism and social criticism … will still be necessary. Compulsions to do some work, be of some use to others and to not be totally selfish will still exist.

Conscience and altruism, however well developed in one’s uprbringing, do need to be reinforced by the feedback of others. However, I think that ‘compulsion’ is too strong a word, if only social criticism is involved – as opposed to the threat of material deprivation or some other type of punishment, with consequences that may eventually be lethal, as it is the case under capitalism. *That* type of compulsion I do not consider necessitated by our DNA. Our ancestors on the proverbial savannah did live under the constant threat of extreme suffering and death; pace the grand evopsych tradition, I do not believe that we need this.


engels 05.12.18 at 5:51 pm

It’s a bit unclear why comparing work to exercise (as something humans need to do to stay healthy) means that people should be forced to work, unless you also want to force them to exercise…

(FYI primitive humans may have worked around 15 hrs/wk)


Ikonoclast 05.13.18 at 1:32 am

F. Foundling,

I have read no evo psych at all to be honest. That I have came up with my own admittedly very crude evo psych theory followed on naturally from my having read some Hume, Darwin and Berkeley. Hume gave important hints towards evolutionary thinking. Darwin noticed this in Hume and then observed, experimented and developed evolutionary science. Moving on to the next thinker of the trio, Berkeley’s Idealism is a kind of Idealist Monism. It is then obvious enough to invert it to develop a physicalist monism.

The successful relational theory of physics suggests employing relational theory for all of metaphysics. The cosmos is one system. All “parts” of the cosmos are subsystems. Boundaries between these sub-systems are important interfaces where matter, energy, information (and possibly field effects) are transferred. It’s obvious enough from this to infer that bodies and brains are systems transferring matter, energy and information and thence evolutionary pressure would not stop before the brain nor even before the mind. That is to say evolutionary pressure will bear on the evolution of mind or on our psychology to use that term. That is not to say it’s the only pressure. Enculturation is a top down pressure just as evolution is a bottom up pressure. This probably gets into the field of bottom up causation and top down causation which I have not scratched the surface of. I am only an amateur tinkerer in philosophy… no professional qualifications.

I see now (upon looking up evo psych) I have arrived at the same basic conclusions as evo psych theory. I mean in terms of the underpinning metaphysics taking its queue from physics and biology. To quote a paper I just found;

“If one assumes, like evolutionary psychologists do, that psychological systems are biological and physical (i.e., no ethereal concept of mind) in nature, evolutionary models must apply to the brain and its sequalae. However, since at least Descartes and, perhaps as far back as Plato, a mind-body dualism has existed whereby the mind (i.e., psyche) has been treated as distinct from the body and there is a tendency to treat humans as distinct from “animals” in some form of implicit anthropocentrism which has led to psychological theories generally being developed in parallel deafness to biological theories (Jonason and Dane, 2014). However, such dualism is problematic as it is (1) less parsimonious than monism and (2) creates untestable hypotheses. Evolutionary psychology is a field that tries to reconcile this problem to integrate the study of human behavior and mental mechanisms with the larger biological literature through interdisciplinary means. It tries to treat humans as just another species and assumes that the models researchers use to understand species from tardigrades to blue whales can be used to explain human variability and outcomes.” – Peter K. Jonason.


J-D 05.13.18 at 1:33 am

Louis N. Proyect

It all goes back to Marx (and Engels) who anticipated revolutions taking place not in Mexico or Czarist Russia but in Germany, the USA, Great Britain, et al.

If that’s how they figured it, they figured wrong, didn’t they? and …

At any rate, the contradictions of capitalist anarchy will dictate revolutionary upheavals in the capitalist heartlands in the years to come.

… are you making a similar error? How long is this supposed to take: ten years, a hundred, a thousand? Is it sensible to wait as long as Christians have for their Second Coming, Muslims for their Mahdi, Jews for their Messiah?


Hidari 05.13.18 at 9:13 am

‘Revolution is the opium of the intellectuals’.

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