by Francisco Palacios
On February 13, the Journal of Global Faultlines published a special issue titled “Envisaging a Socialism for the 21st Century,” and a Zoom panel discussion to promote it was streamed live on Facebook on Saturday, March 25, 2023. Among the panelists were Nick Rogers, Edoardo Bellando, Michael Roberts, Will McMahon, Peter Lawrence, Andrew Kliman, Alberto Gabriele, Noah Tucker and Nicholas Mwangi.
The central topic of the special issue and the Zoom discussion was supposed to be whether socialism—understood as a cooperative, egalitarian, and democratic way of organizing society—remains a viable political project. But an invasion of zombie Stalinism and pseudo-anti-imperialism derailed both the special issue and the Zoom meeting, hampering discussion of the announced topic and making it difficult if not impossible to make any progress toward the articulation of a concept of socialism for the 21st century.
Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program
One of the contributors to the special issue and participants in the panel discussion, Andrew Kliman, is a Marxist-Humanist theorist and economist. His paper in the special issue undertakes a close reading of Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program in order to analyze what that work actually says about the revolutionary transformation of capitalism into communism. Kliman’s motivation is that “the CGP still has much to offer people searching for a viable alternative to capitalism, much that has still not been widely understood or internalized, because it is such a dense and theoretically demanding work.”
During the discussion, Kliman focused on Marx’s argument that a society’s relations of production determine its superstructure, including the distribution of income, which is part of the superstructure. This means that distribution of food, housing, appliances, etc., is determined by the relations of production, not the other way around. Other features of social life such as politics, law and culture are also determined according to the relations of production at the base of society. To change these features of its superstructure, a change in society’s relations of production is necessary.
To make the concept of socialism politically viable, an honest, responsible and scientific effort must be made to understand what is specific about capitalism, and how socialism is different from it. It is this theoretical task that Marx set out to accomplish in Capital: it is an unravelling of capital that permits socialist theoreticians to understand its essence. In the Critique of the Gotha Program, based on a lifetime of scientific work, Marx differentiated between two phases of communism, a lower phase and a higher phase. However, Kliman argued in his paper and his presentation that the specific aspects of the lower phase of communism as described by Marx are usually ignored, due to misinterpretation, ignorance or bad faith.
Ignorant, fantastical or common-sense tirades about what socialism is (or what intellectuals imagine it to be) are no substitute for a genuine discussion that revolves around breaking with capitalism and entering the lower phase of communist society. It is ethically and scientifically irresponsible to knowingly misrepresent the specific aspects of capitalism that make it what it is, or even worse, to confuse capitalist relations of production with socialism, as has been historically the case with left intellectuals.
Two essential concepts of Marx’s theoretical edifice, directly and indirectly social labor, are at the center of the discussion in the Critique of the Gotha Program. To achieve the lower phase of communism, Marx argued, it is necessary for labor to become directly social. During his presentation, Kliman endorsed this view and explained that directly social labor (also known as immediately social labor)
basically means that if somebody’s doing a day’s work … one day of work is going to immediately qualify as their contribution to production, irrespective of anything else. [It] doesn’t matter how much stuff they produce, the value of that stuff ([since] there wouldn’t be any value), the demand for that stuff—none of that matters. You did your work; that’s your contribution.
Kliman acknowledged that a society in which labor has become directly social is not “the ultimate goal,” but he emphasized that it is key to envisioning a socialism that is relevant to the 21st century:
If we want to envision socialism for the 21st century, it’s absolutely imperative to distinguish between the two phases of communist society. The higher phase is going to… break the link between what an individual contributes and what that individual receives: “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” That is just not something that is achievable given the economic conditions that we have in the 21st century. … What we have to talk about is how do we achieve the lower phase of communism.
The leap to a society in which labor is immediately social involves several social conditions or relations: people need to control their own means of production, associate with each other on a free, voluntary basis, and, most importantly, capitalist production must be abolished. Capitalist production is not merely production of objects for exchange. Capitalist production is first of all production of value, infinite production and reproduction of wealth in the abstract. Instead of production for limitless expansion of value, a socialist society will act towards “the ongoing development of individuals and their abilities,” as Kliman put it.
The Zombie Stalinist Invasion
As is to be expected, given the rearguard position of the socialist left intellectuals in our time, this subject was mostly avoided during the discussion. A section of the presenters aligned themselves with obscurantist interpretations of imperialism and demonstrated a superficial, amateurish and erroneous grasp of basic Marxian categories. It was clear that the presenters, excluding Andrew Kliman, Nick Rogers and Michael Roberts, had no interest in what Marx actually said, nor in proletarian revolution that would actually empower the working class. The main thing they were interested in was opposing the USA, an interest parallel with an incompetent and outdated cold-war understanding of imperialism. To this end, tangential discussions about industrialization took center stage in their remarks.
The Chinese bourgeoise was hailed as the savior of the international working class. For example, Alberto Gabriele, an obscurantist presenter, attempted to make the argument that socialism will eventually arise automatically from industrial investment. To anyone versed in Marxist theory, it is obvious that, to the contrary, the main product of capitalist relations of production are the capitalist relations of production themselves. But in Gabriele’s mind, Chinese capitalist relations of production produce socialism.
No indication was given as to why this would be the outcome.
In a similar fashion, pie in the sky was promised by Will McMahon: “There are some people who would argue that China is on its way to socialism and it’s just going take a very long time.” And Peter Lawrence stated: “I see socialism developing out of a very, very advanced form of capitalism … China is moving towards mass production of pretty much anything … and this has all been happening through the dictatorship of something, whether it’s proletartia[n] or something else is another matter!” In their own words, socialism by and through the working class is thrown into the dustbin and replaced by fantasies of the good intentions of capitalists outside the USA.
During the Zoom panel discussion, a spectator named Felipe challenged this kind of theoretical retrogression in the comments section:
The question of socialism is not a question of machines … but a question of human-to-human relations. Hence the importance of speaking about relations between people and not about the latest capitalist gadget. … Machinery has already been sufficiently developed globally allowing us to jump onto the discussion of human-to-human relationships. How long will we be waiting for the engineers of the capitalist class to build the ultimate meatgrinder that will function as the so-called “material base” for socialism? … [R]elationships between people are what determine the way that technology is distributed around the world, but some speakers seem to see it the other way around.
A correct interpretation of the capitalist relation of production is dialectical. Its positive aspect is the imposition of capitalist dictatorship. All human activity is directed at the production and reproduction of capital: human beings are consumed by machines and their bodily exertions are converted into money. The positive negates the human spirit and defiles it, as its own development is inversely proportional.
Marx therefore holds that the development, and not the underdevelopment, of the negated subject, the working class, is the necessary condition for revolution. Dollar-store anti-imperialists, on the other hand, hold that it is the development of the positivity of capital that is the key to revolution. They don’t see that the positive side of the relationship is developed by the negative side, and not the other way around. Thus, in their minds, machines, dead labor, automatons become the subject, while real-life thinking people become the objects, moved to revolution by the so called “material basis.” Yet the real material basis for socialism is large-scale human cooperation in production, mediated by mechanical science that was created, and natural laws that were discovered, centuries ago in the early years of capitalism!
The final blow against capitalism will not be made by the machines, but by the people around the world who are denied a right to exist by the capitalist mode of production. It is necessary to put the essence of the capitalist mode of production at the center of the discussion in the leap towards socialism.
It is hard to say where “anti-imperialists” are getting their concepts from, but they do not match up with Marx’s own. Alberto Gabriele starts off with a correct idea, that capitalist productivity is driven by production of value. However, he holds the incorrect notion that unproductive sectors are closer to socialism because they supposedly directly fulfill human needs without being mediated by the market.
Gabriele trips over his own correct definition stating that “services” such as healthcare are unproductive, when in real life they are very much capitalist enterprises that create both value and surplus-value, as the American working class has come to realize. In any case, unproductive sectors are mediated by the market and dominated by the needs of capital. Unproductive firms obtain their profits by appropriating surplus-value created by workers in other firms, as the chapters on commercial capital in the third volume of Marx’s Capital demonstrate. By speculating on bonds, land, cryptocurrencies and commodities, other capitalists also appropriate surplus-value, and rake in profit, without a second of productive labor. The expansion of the unproductive sector is not equivalent to the expansion of the socialist mode of production. Once again, Gabriele replaces socialism with something else that is not socialism, but just one of capital’s many faces.
Approximately one hour into the Zoom discussion, Andrew Kliman stated that
“Socialism in one country” is a mirage […] it’s got to compete against other countries in a capitalist world—militarily, [… and] economically “catch up with and outdistance” the other countries, like Stalin put it. And to compete successfully, it has to operate by capitalist principles just like every other capitalist entity.
Excuses for capitalist dictatorships were also made by the “anti-imperialist” participants in the Zoom discussion. They argued that that once a revolution takes control of the capitalist state, this makes democracy impossible due to the international imperialist attempts to destabilize the country. What they are really saying is that democracy and autonomy of the working class during the revolution will be made illegal, since any national uprising will attract international imperialist aggression, and that aggression cannot be fought against except by a counterrevolutionary “anti-imperialist” and antidemocratic junta. There is total silence about any road to socialism except through more extreme forms of barbarism. This isn’t socialist science, it’s amateurish confusion.
As Kliman argued:
Revolution can all too easily turn into counter-revolution. It’s not only the external enemy, there’s enemies of the revolution from within the revolutionary movement. And revolutions encounter problems. If they fail to solve those problems, that allows the counter-revolution to emerge. […We cannot] just say “Oh, we’ll experiment”—that’s a road to disaster. And then there are these lapses and gaps everywhere in our thinking and knowledge. And so we have to be oppressively aware of the danger of counter-revolution from within, and reorganize our thinking continuously in light of it. Above all, this means not focusing obsessively on taking power, on making a revolution and so forth, but think[ing] beyond that: what happens after that?
The retrogression in our age takes the form of a sham anti-imperialism, which does not grasp imperialism concretely. Instead of opposing all imperialism, the outdated cold-war perspective of “two worlds”—worlds that no longer even exist as such—is pulled out of the trashcan to avoid dealing with the present situation scientifically. We have to ask, non-rhetorically: why cling to outdated theories and interpretations when reality flies in the face of them? Why keep avoiding the problem of the capitalist mode of production? And why act as if anti-US imperialism is equivalent to socialism? Are the masses of workers around the world, who have already had to endure decades of oppression under “anti-imperialist,” “socialist,” capitalist governments not allowed to push toward concrete socialism? Do the so-called “material conditions” condemn them to be permanent pawns in an infinite geopolitical capitalist game?
As Kliman noted in his presentation, it is easy for the working class “to be pulled into struggles between different imperialist powers and subordinated to one or another imperialist power. That project, of finding an independent path, just cannot work through any existing capitalist power, no matter what side you’re on.”
Michael Roberts’ Hazy Ambivalences
Michael Roberts was the only presenter in the Zoom meeting, other than Kliman and Nick Rogers, who tried to attack the concept of automatic socialism via the development of machinery. But Roberts did no more than take an ambivalent stance. He correctly emphasized the impossibility of an isolated revolution and the “mirage” of “socialism in one country,” but he ultimately led us nowhere. To Roberts, the economies of the USSR, China, Cuba, etc. were not socialist, but they weren’t capitalist. What were they, then? Roberts called them “transitional economies,” but asked, “were they transitioning into socialism?” To which we have to reply: can a capitalist economy transition into a capitalist economy?
The capitalist mode of production persisted in these economies, irrespective of markets. The superstructure, the way that the capitalist mode of production manifested itself, contained new phenomena not seen in other countries, but the determining factor is the essence and not the appearance.
Roberts persistently attempted to avoid specificity regarding the sequence of determination. Instead of acknowledging that the capitalist mode of production is what determines and subsumes the superstructure, he offered a hazy interpretation that explains nothing: “we had something in between.” “They’re like hybrids. They’re not capitalist anymore but they’re not socialist. Are they transitioning to socialism? Well, I have my doubts.” “These countries… are … not united together in a worldwide coordination of non-capitalist states transitioning to socialism. They are surrounded by US imperialism.” These formulations tell us something about what the countries in question are not—but not about what they are, which remains shrouded in mystery. And again, the problem of understanding their mode of production is replaced by ramblings about appearances.
Roberts argued that the reasons the USSR, China, Cuba, etc. did not achieve socialism was because 1) the administrators of capital were not elected and because 2) their wages were too high. Still more evasions of the central issue: the capitalist mode of production! Like Noah Tucker, who I shall turn to in a moment, Roberts claimed that these countries abolished capitalist production because there was no “production for profit through a market” (emphasis added). But whether there was a market or not, the economies of these countries continued to be the dictatorship of production for profit. The reason there was no democratic control of the government is that the work process was still organized according to the needs of value production. Production of value continued to determine the character of the political system, not the other way around.
Roberts’ perspective was challenged by Nick Rogers, editor of the journal symposium and organizer of the Zoom panel. In his concluding comments, Rogers said,
The break from capitalism to socialism is the key break. It’s from one mode of production to another mode of production, … it’s not something where you have a kind of capitalist society, with a communist society [sic] in charge, that persists for decades and you think you can gradually transform it from one into the other. … That’s the whole point about my critique of the market-socialist approach. If you have competitive, autonomous units which basically are trying to maximize their income over their expenditure, i.e., they’re profit maximizing, it doesn’t really matter who controls or owns them—they’re going to compete with each other, and the same dynamic you have under capitalism is going to emerge, inevitably so.
Capitalism doesn’t behave in the way that it does because it’s the nature of the bourgeoise, because the individual members of the bourgeoise are particularly nasty individuals and do nasty things. Anyone in their position is compelled to behave in a particular way: keep wages down, to advertise, to spend money on all kinds of financial instruments and so on, to not care about the environment, to not care about the conditions in which the work is work. That is what you see in China now, despite the fact that the state plays a big role. …
If you try to build socialism in a single country, … especially when you’re doing it from a backward economy that’s not using the most modern technology and techniques, you’re going to have to focus on catching up and competing with the major capitalist economies. Whether you do that through capitalism itself and market mechanisms, as China does, or a very centralized economy as the Soviet Union has, you’re going to have to copy lots of the behavior of capitalism. You’re not going to be able to focus on the things that Marx was interested in.
Capitalist Relations of Production vs. Noah Tucker’s Markets
Another participant in the Zoom meeting, Noah Tucker—who was a coeditor of the now defunct 21st Century Socialism web magazine and ex-Labour Party councillor for Haringey (a borough of London)—also did not seem to grasp the central issue of the capitalist relation of production, which is the extraction of surplus-labor that turns human beings into slaves of the machine. He instead prioritized the issue of who gets to keep the product of the capitalist production process, which is an issue of distribution, and thus diverted the discussion onto how to evade the “bad” effects of capitalist relations without having to tackle them directly:
The problem with capitalism isn’t just exploitation. It’s not just the sucking out of the production of value produced by the majority and the holding, the accruing of that wealth by a minority. It’s the impoverishment and instability and crisis and really the road to ruin is … we’re looking for instance at the push to ecological destruction which is caused by the market itself.
This sleight of hand shifts attention from the real problem at hand, relations between people at the point of production, and takes us out of the factory, into the market. Tucker is literally taking steps in the reverse direction of Marx’s own analysis, who at the end of chapter 6 of the first volume of Capital abandoned the market with a memorable scene:
The consumption of labor-power is completed, as in the case of every other commodity, outside the limits of the market or of the sphere of circulation. Accompanied by Mr. Moneybags and by the possessor of labor-power, we therefore take leave for a time of this noisy sphere, where everything takes place on the surface and in view of all men, and follow them both into the hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there stares us in the face “No admittance except on business.” Here we shall see, not only how capital produces, but how capital is produced. We shall at last force the secret of profit making.
Instead of opening our eyes, Tucker induces us to close them! Do not doubt that Tucker will force us to close our eyes during the revolution. The recourse to the market is not an error but an old Stalinist trope— an apology for the old centralized “plan,” a plan to replace the industrialist with the Party while keeping the labor process a capitalist process.
Tucker wants us to think that simply because “industry and the economy [are] publicly owned” by a capitalist junta, it is automatically “in the hands of society as a whole,” and that the state-capitalist will therefore be “consciously controlling and planning economic development in the interest of the whole of society” (italics added). Tucker’s statement that the state needs to have other “interests” in mind beside its own interest—as a “socialist” state “in the hands of society”—is a telling slip of the tongue. Tucker is not dumb: he knows very well what he is saying. Do you?
The problem with capitalism, its essential problem, really is exploitation. The possibility of achieving a socialist society that has abolished capital ultimately depends on correctly understanding the nature of capitalist relations at the point of production and the necessary steps in eliminating them. The relation of production is the factor that determines income distribution, laws, justice, government, etc. Tucker, however, moves the discussion from the determinant to the determined, from the essence to the appearance, from the sphere of production to the sphere of circulation. He sides with the bourgeoise and closes the factory doors on us.
Indeed, the sign states “no admittance except on business,” and his so-called socialism is here to make a killing. Instead of speaking about abolishing the relation of production, he speaks about abolishing “the market” and maintaining capitalist relations of production while “at least trying to find a way of development … not firmly under control of the US-dominated, so-called ‘rules based,’ economic order.” In this way, he completely gives up on socialism and reverts to reforming capitalism under the guise of “anti-imperialism.” Tucker can call himself all he wants, but he is no Marxist.
Elimination of capitalism and elimination of “the market” are two entirely different things. “The market” can indeed be abolished within a unit of capital while nonetheless leaving the capital relation intact. If several industries fall under the hand of a monopoly that also has totalitarian control over the state and the law, reliance on the market for distribution can be abolished and replaced with centralized planning. Planned production that bypasses markets is quite simply the way that any capitalist factory manages the flow of its product across its various stages of production. Workers on an assembly line simply hand the object of production to the next group of workers, without having to trade anything for it to move along.
There is a sharp divide between socialism and actually existing Chinese capitalism. Mental gymnastics that obscures the difference between them is no more than an illusory “superseding in thought, which leaves its object in existence in the real world,” as Marx wrote in his critique of Hegel’s dialectic. And in the Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx complained that
Vulgar socialism … has taken over from the bourgeois economists the consideration and treatment of distribution as independent of the mode of production and hence the presentation of socialism as turning principally on distribution. After the real relation has long been made clear, why retrogress again?
The same can and should be said about the presentation of “socialism” as turning principally on elimination of “the market.”