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Sunday, May 21, 2023

Western Marxism: The Unwholesome Temptation

The history of Marxism has a parallel history of counter-Marxism-- intellectual currents that posture as the true Marxism. 

Even before Marxism came into being as a coherent ideology, Marx and Engels devoted an often-neglected section of their 1848 Communist Manifesto to debunking the existing contenders for true socialism.

As the workers’ movement painfully sought a system of beliefs to animate its response to capitalism, the ideas of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels gradually won over workers, peasants, and the oppressed. It was not an easy victory. Liberalism-- the dominant ideology of the capitalist class-- served workers and peasants in their fight against absolutist tyranny.

With capitalism and liberal institutions firmly established, anarchism-- the ideology of the disgruntled petty-bourgeois-- rivalled Marxism for the leadership of the workers’ movement. Contradictorily, embracing extreme individualism and utopian democracy distilled from capitalism, yet voicing a bitter hatred of capitalist institutions and economic arrangements, the anarchists failed to offer a viable escape from the crushing weight of capitalism. 

Once Bolshevism seized power in 1917, the workers’ movement found an example of real-existing-socialism led by real-avowed-Marxists, a powerful beacon for the way forward in the struggle against capitalism. The victory of the Russian Revolution established Marxism as the most promising road for an exploited majority, with Leninism the only successful ideology for revolutionary change and socialism. To this day, Leninism has remained the only proven guide to socialism.

Immediately after the revolution, rival “Marxisms” sprang up.

The failure of subsequent European revolutions outside of Russia, especially Germany, sheared away numerous intellectuals, like Karl Korsch and György Lukács,who imagined a different, supposedly better, path to proletarian revolution. Buoyed by material support from benefactors, university appointments, and the many eager sponsors of class betrayal, critics and detractors of Leninism abounded.

Especially in the West-- North America and Europe-- where the working class was significant and growing dramatically, dissidence, class betrayal, and opportunism proved disruptive forces in the world Communist movement, forces that capitalist rulers were eager to support. Young people, inexperienced workers, aspiring intellectuals, and the déclassé, were especially vulnerable to the appeal of independence, purity, idealism, and liberal values. Money, career opportunities, and celebrity were readily available to those who were willing to sell these ideas.

Indeed, not every critic of Marxism-Leninism-- revolutionary Communism-- was or is insincere or without merit, but honesty demands recognition that no real advocate for overthrowing capitalism could achieve prominence, celebrity, or a mainstream soap box in the capitalist West. He or she could be a curiosity or a token for the sake of appearances-- a stooge. 

Conversely, any intellectual or political figure who does achieve wide-spread prominence or influence cannot represent a serious, existential challenge to capitalism when the road to prominence and influence is patrolled by the guardians of capitalism.

Nonetheless, the workers’ movement has been plagued by divisive ideological trends or fads spawned by independent voices who, wittingly or not, are exploited by and render service to the capitalist class. 

In the West, it is almost impossible to be a young radical and not be tempted by a veritable ideological marketplace of putative anti-capitalist or socialist theories, vying with one another for allegiance. Since the demise of unvarnished, real-existing socialism in the Soviet Union and the disorientation of many Communist and Workers’ parties, the competition of ideas has created even more confusion. 

Clearly, the working-class movement, the revolutionary socialist movement, needs guidance to avoid distractions, bogus theories, and corrupted ideas. The march of political neophytes through the arcade of specious, fantastic ideas is a great tragedy, especially regarding those ideas posing as Marxist.


Happily, a new generation of Marxist thinkers are challenging the allure of Marxist pretenders, more specifically, those associated with what has come to be called “Western Marxism.” A sympathetic Wikipedia article offers about as accurate a definition of the words as one might want:  “The term denotes a loose collection of theorists who advanced an interpretation of Marxism distinct from both classical and Orthodox Marxism and the Marxism-Leninism of the Soviet Union.” It couldn’t be made clearer: Western Marxism is anything but the Marxism-Leninism that has buttressed worker-engaged revolutionary parties since the time of the Bolshevik revolution! 

Marxist historian and journalist, Vijay Prashad, gave a seminar at the Marx Memorial Library on November 21, 2022, in which he excoriated the Western Marxism of the 1980s:

There was a sustained attack on Marxism in this period, led by New Left Books, now Verso Books, in London, which published Hegemony and Socialist Strategy by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe in 1985. The book mischievously utilised the work of Antonio Gramsci to make an attack at Marxism, to in fact champion something they called “post-Marxism.” Post-structuralism, post-Marxism, post-colonialism: this became the flavour of academic literature coming out of Western countries from the 1980s… Particularly after the collapse of the Soviet Union there was a great weakness in our ability to fight back against this denigration of Marxism in the name of post-Marxism… When they [Laclau and Mouffe] talk about “agency” and “the subject” and so on, they have basically walked away from the structuring impact of political economy and returned to a pre-Marxist time; they have in fact not gone beyond Marxism but back to a time before Marxism. (Viewing Decolonization through a Marxist Lens, published in Communist Review, Winter 2022/2023)

Prashad places the influential works of Hardt and Negri and Deleuze and Guattari in the same post-Marxist mix. 

He regrets the multiculturalism turn because it ”basically took the guts out of the anticolonial, anti-racist critique, at the global level you had the arrival of ‘postcolonial’ thought, and also ‘decoloniality’-- in other words, let's look at power, let’s look at culture, but let’s not look at the political economy that structures everyday life and behavior and reproduces the colonial mentality; that has to be off the table… So, we entered into a kind of academic morass, where Marxism was not, in a sense, permitted to enter.”

Prashad might well have added the intrusion of rational-choice theory into Marxism in the 1980s, an uninvited analysis of Marxist theory through the lens of methodological individualism and liberal egalitarianism. One leading exponent of what came to be called “analytical Marxism” eviscerated the robust Marxist concept of exploitation by proving that if we have inequality as an initial condition, we will quite logically reproduce inequality-- a trivial derivation with little relevance to understanding the historically evolved concept of labor exploitation..

Prashad might have noted the continuing influence of postmodern relativism upon Marxist theory in the 1980s and beyond, a denigration of any claim that Marxism is the science of society. For the postmodernist, Marxism can only be, at best, one of several competing interpretations of society, coherent within Marxist circles, but forbidden from making any greater claim for universality. Moreover, the postmodernist denies that there can ever be any valid overarching theory of capitalism, any “metanarrative” that plots a socio-economic system’s trajectory. While its flaws can not be addressed here, the late Marxist historian Ellen Meiksins Wood exposed the academic trend with great clarity.

Another excellent, contemporary critique of Western Marxism can be found in the writings of Marxist author Gabriel Rockhill. Rockhill skillfully and thoroughly discredits the Frankfurt School of neo-Marxism, especially its most celebrated thinkers, Hockheimer, Habermas, Adorno, and Marcuse, exposing their fealty to various sponsors. Those who paid the bills enjoyed sympathetic ideas, an outcome often found with the practitioners of Western Marxism.

 Rockhill also does  a scathing exposé of today’s most prominent Marxist poseur, Slavoj Žižek. I was happy to heap praise on Rockhill’s deflation of Žižek’s unmatched ego in an earlier post. Both Rockhill’s unmasking of the Frankfurt School and his destruction of the Žižek cult are essential reading in contesting Western Marxism.

Most recently, philosopher Carlos L. Garrido ambitiously tackles Western Marxism in his book The Purity Fetish and the Crisis of Western Marxism (Midwestern Marx Publishing Press, 2023). Central to Garrido’s argument is the notion of a “purity fetish” that is at the core of the Western Marxists’ attack on Marxism-Leninism. This insightful and original thesis indeed captures a feature common to the leading lights of left-wing Western anti-Communism; from Frederich Ebert to Slavoj Žižek, “Marxists” have hypocritically insisted that revolutionaries be held to a higher standard of democratic governance, judicial perfection, non-violence, and policy perfection beyond anything experienced in bourgeois society or to be reasonably expected of a revolutionary society outside of sheer fantasy.

Western Marxists can conveniently overlook capitalism’s history of genocidal, undemocratic, and exploitative sins while excoriating the Fidelistas for settling accounts with a few hundred Batista torturers. They deplore the sweeping changes that Soviet and Chinese Communists implemented in agriculture to overcome the frequent famines that devastated their countries when the changes unfortunately coincided with severe famines, as though great change for the better could evade natural events and tragedy anywhere but in their imagination.

They turn a blind eye to the human costs imposed on humanity by ruling elites' resistance to great change, while denouncing revolutionaries for seeking that change and risking a better future. Western Marxism diminishes the great accomplishments of real existing socialism, while relentlessly denouncing the errors incurred in socialist construction. Garrido effectively underscores the necessary pains and errors in realizing a new world, in escaping the clutches of ruthless capitalism. 

As Garrido notes: 

This is the sort of ‘Marxism’ that imperialism appreciates, the type which CIA agent Thomas Braden called “the compatible left.” This is the ‘Marxism’ which functions as the vanguard of controlled counter-hegemony.

He eloquently summarizes:

Socialism for the Western Marxists is, in the words of Marx, a purely scholastic question. They are not interested in real struggle, in changing the world, but in continuously purifying an idea, one that is debated amongst other ivory-tower Marxists and which is used to measure against the real world. The label of ‘socialist’ or ‘Marxist’ is sustained merely as a counter-cultural and edgy identity which exists in the fringes of quotidian society. That is what Marxism is reduced to in the West-- a personal identity.

I might add that it is also a commonplace for Western Marxists to invest heavily in other-people’s-socialism. Rather than engaging their own working classes, Western Marxists fight surrogate struggles for socialism through the solidarity movement, picking and choosing the “purest” struggles and debating the merits of various socialisms vicariously.

Garrido elaborates on socialism-as-an-investment-in-identity:

In the context of the hyper-individualist West’s treatment of socialism as a personal identity, the worst thing that may happen for these ‘socialists’ is for socialism to be achieved. That would mean the total destruction of their counter-cultural fringe identity. Their utter estrangement from the working masses of the country may in part be read as an attempt to make socialist ideas fringe enough to never convince working people, and hence, never conquer political power.

The success of socialism would entail a loss of selfhood, a destruction of the socialist-within-capitalism identity. The socialism of the West is grounded on an identity which hates the existing order but hates even more the loss of identity which transcending it would entail.

Garrido’s objectives are not completed with his masterful dissection of Western Marxism. In addition, he devotes great attention to Western Marxism’s critique of the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) in a section entitled China and the Purity Fetish of Western Marxism. Of course, he is correct to deplore Western Marxism’s unprincipled collaboration with bourgeois ideologues in attacking every policy or act of Peoples’ China since its revolution in 1949. As with the USSR, any honest, deeply considered estimation of the trajectory of the PRC must-- warts and all-- see it as a positive in humanity’s necessary transcendence of capitalism.

As anti-imperialists, we must defend the PRC’s right (and other countries’ rights) to choose its own course.

As Marxists, we must defend the Chinese Communist Party’s right to find its own road to socialism.

But Garrido goes further, by mounting an impassioned, but one-sided defense of Chinese socialism. As a militant advocate of the dialectical method, this is an odd departure. As esteemed Marxist R. Palme Dutt argued in the 1960s, the pregnant question for a dialectical materialist is Whither China? not: Does the PRC measure up to some pure Platonic form of socialism? 

A more balanced view of the PRC road would reference the significance of the Communist Party’s overwhelmingly peasant class base in its foundation, its engagement with Chinese nationalism, and the strong voluntarist tendency in Mao Zedong Thought. It would consider the 1960s’ break with the World Communist movement and the rapprochement with the most reactionary elements in US ruling circles in the 1970s, capped by the shameful material support for US and South African surrogates in the liberation wars of Southern Africa. PRC was funding Jonas Savimbi and UNITA while Cuban internationalists were dying fighting them and their apartheid allies. Which suggests the question: Could Peoples’ China do more to help Cuba overcome the US blockade, as did the Soviet Union?

A fair account would address the PRC invasion of Vietnam in 1979 and Peoples’ China’s unwavering defense of the Khmer Rouge. Surely, all these factors play a role in assessing the PRC’s road to socialism.

These uncomfortable facts make it hard to agree with Garrido that the PRC has been “a beacon in the anti-imperialist struggle.”

Of course, today is another matter. My own view is that the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party is “riding the tiger” of a substantial capitalist sector, to use imagery reminiscent of high Maoism. How well they are riding it is in question, but they are indeed riding it. There are many promising developments, but also some that are worrisome. 

In any case, the comrades who are critical or skeptical of the Chinese road should not be summarily swept into the dustbin with Western Marxism. 

Garrido brings his purity fetish home when he discusses US socialist organizing. He casts a critical eye on the class character of most of the US left, rooting it in the petty-bourgeoisie and the influence of petty-bourgeois ideas. He locates the conveyor for these ideas in academia, the media, and NGOs. Additional material support for petty-bourgeois ideology comes from non-profit corporations and, of course, the Democratic Party. 

The petty-bourgeois bias of the US left reinforces its hyper-critical attitude toward movements attempting to actually secure a socialist future. Wherever socialists or socialist-oriented militants tackle the enormous obstacles before them, many on the left will insist that they adhere to courteous liberal standards, an unrealistic demand guaranteeing failure. Garrido mocks the insistence on revolutionary purity: “...the problem is that those things in the real world called socialism were never actually socialism; socialism is really this beautiful idea that exists in a pure form in my head….”

The purity fetish of the middle strata extends to radicals who scorn workers as “backward” or “deplorable.” Garrido counters this purity obsession with a wonderful quote from Lenin: one “can (and must) begin to build socialism, not with abstract human material, or with human material especially prepared by us, but with the human material bequeathed to us by capitalism.” 

Regarding the Trump vote and the working class, Garrido scolds the US left: 

…they don’t see that what is implicit in that vote is a desire for something new, something which only the socialist movement, not Trump or any bourgeois party, could provide. Instead, they see in this chunk of the working class a bunch of racists bringing forth a ‘fascist’ threat which can only be defeated by giving up on the class struggle and tailing the Democrats. Silly as it may sound, this policy dominates the contemporary communist movement in the U.S.

While not all of the left is guilty of this failure, the charge is not far off the mark.

Finally, Garrido faults much of the US left for its blanket dismissal of progressive trends and achievements in US history. Many leftists debase heroic struggles in US history by painting a portrait of a relentless trajectory of reaction, racism, and imperialism. Garrido correctly sees this as an instantiation of a negative purity fetish-- denouncing every page of US history as fatally wanting and inauthentic: “...purity fetish Marxists add on to their futility in developing subjective conditions for revolution by completely disconnecting themselves from the traditions the American masses have come to accept.”

While this is true, it must be remembered that there is always the danger that US history would be celebrated so vigorously that the country’s legacy of cruelty and bloody massacre might be muted by patriotic zeal. During the Popular Front era, for example, Communist leader Earl Browder’s slogan that “Communism is twentieth century Americanism” invested too much social justice in Americanism and too little in Communism. 

US history and tradition is contradictory and Marxists should always expose that contradiction-- a legacy of both great, historic social change and ugly inhumanity. The country’s origin shares a tragic settler-colonial past with countries like Australia and South Africa in its genocidal treatment of indigenous people. Those same settlers established or tolerated the brutal exploitation of Africans forced into chattel slavery. While we could lay the blame at the doorstep of the US ruling class, it is US history as well.

At the same time, the US revolution was the most radical for its time and every generation produced a consequential movement to correct the failings of the legacy or advance the horizon of social progress. An emancipating civil war, the expansion of suffrage, workers’ gains against corporations, social welfare and insurance, and a host of other milestones mark the peoples’ history.

While writing and reflecting on the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution (Echoes of the Marsellaise), Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm couldn’t help but be struck by the lesser global influence of the earlier US revolution upon nineteenth-century social change. He thought that reformers and revolutionaries of the time could recognize their point of departure “more readily in the Ancien Régime of France than in the free colonists and slave-holders of North America.” Undoubtedly, the stain of the genocide of indigenous peoples and brutal slavery influenced that disposition.

Indeed, Hobsbawn’s observation underscores the contradictory character of the US past. It is not a “purity fetish” that explains this judgment, but the cold, harsh facts of US history.

Nonetheless, it is appropriate for Garrido to remind us of the many revolutionaries-- Marx, Lenin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, William Z Foster, Herbert Aptheker, Fidel, and more-- who have both drawn inspiration and offered inspiration from the victories of the people as well as the fierce resistance to ruling-class oppression contained in US history. He effectively cites Communist leader Georgi Dimitrov who rejects the practice of national nihilism-- the denigration of all expressions of national pride and accomplishment. Within every national identity is an identity to be celebrated in its resistance to oppression and its dedication to a better way of life. Workers must draw national humility from the failures of the past, while drawing national pride from the victories over injustice. A left that attends to only one and not both will fail the working class.


Western Marxism--Marxist scholasticism, disconnected from revolutionary practice-- distracts far-too-many well-meaning, hungry-for-change potential allies on the arduous road to socialism. It is heartening to find voices rising to challenge the sterile, obscurantism of this distraction, while defending and promoting the tradition of Marxism-Leninism and Communism. We should encourage and support Marxists like Prashad, Rockhill, and Garrido in conducting this struggle. 

Greg Godels

Sunday, April 30, 2023

The End of an Era

Why do the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the World Bank-- three of the most highly regarded international economic organizations-- project a bleak road ahead for the global economy? 

Ominously, the World Bank warns of the possibility of a coming “lost decade” for economic growth

In January of this year, the World Bank dropped its global growth projection for 2023 to 1.7% from its June of 2022 projection of 3%. To put some perspective on the number, during the era of high globalization before the 2007-9 crash, global growth averaged 3.5%. Since the crisis, growth has averaged 2.8%. And just three months after the January projection, the World Bank warns of an entire decade of lowered growth expectations. As quoted in The Wall Street Journal: “it will take a herculean collective policy effort to restore growth in the next decade to the average of the previous one.”

Likewise, the WTO projects the volume of world merchandise trade to expand at only 1.7% this year from the 2.8% average growth experienced since 2008.

On the heels of the April World Bank alarm, the IMF has announced its worst medium-term growth forecast since 1990. 

Accordingly, all three major international organizations have offered challenging, if not dire predictions for the global economy.

Clearly, the capitalist ship that has been buffeted by a global pandemic, raging inflation, a European war, and bank failures is taking on water. While there is no reason to expect the ship to sink, serious alarm bells are going off.

The pundits, policy-makers, and economics professors assured us that the orgy of price increases battering household budgets was only temporary, due to disruptions in global supply chains caused first by the pandemic, then by the war in Ukraine. Those promises were made over two years ago. 

Since then, explanations have given way to prayer. The policy tools-- a bitter potion of Central Bank interest rate hikes-- have proven less effective against inflation than promised. The previous long decade of unusually low interest rates encourages consumers to freely use credit when income is under stress, as it is with rampant inflation. As interest rates soar, those same consumers are slow to recognize their exploding debt load from high interest payments, adding to an already deteriorating standard of living. Reliance on credit thwarts the dampening effects of interest-rate increases upon consumer demand. 

Media Pollyannas rejoiced over the March Consumer Price Index numbers, with growth down to 5% over the level of the year earlier (the Fed target is 2%). While the drop is significant, the media neglected to mention that they had been persistently reminding us that the Federal Reserve relies on the core rate over the overall rate in its policy decisions. That rate-- the core CPI-- actually rose in March (its components-- core services and core goods-- were both up from February). So much for the power of faith. 

Thus, the Federal Reserve will likely raise interest rates again in May, further increasing the cost of newly incurred debt.

And why would inflation ease when consumers are still rushing towards Armageddon by continuing to tolerate price increases? Proctor and Gamble, one of global economy’s biggest consumer-product monopolies (Tide, Charmin, Gillette, Crest, etc.) has raised prices by 10% with little loss in sales volume and with growing dollar revenue. P&G has no incentive to stop or slow price increases as long as revenue (and profits) continue to grow. In fact, why would they? They are in business to make money.

Simple as it may seem, that’s the answer behind the “puzzle” of inflation: “‘The only way to explain this in relation to what we’ve seen in some of the commodity price indices for food is that margins are being expanded,’ said Claus Vistesen, an economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics” as quoted in The Wall Street Journal. Yes, that’s price gouging.

It’s not a “wage-price spiral” as corporate flacks like to opine. Instead, as Fabio Panetta, European Central Bank board member, confesses, it’s “opportunistic behavior” capped by “a profit-price spiral.” 

Liberal and social democratic economists decry the Federal Reserve’s strategy of putting a wet blanket on consumption to discourage price rises, but they have no alternatives to offer. They are content to leave the management of the capitalist economy to the capitalists, while denouncing their remedies.

Similarly, the once loud advocates of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) are strangely quiet. During the pandemic, the idea of running large, stimulative deficits without fear of igniting inflation became popular. Left-wing pundits thought that they had found a pain-free method of funding social reforms without tapping the accumulated wealth of the obscenely rich-- a magical political elixir. The arrival of spiraling inflation has stifled that talk.

If three major capitalist institutions are foretelling economic uncertainty and instability, it is because we are exiting a distinctive era of capitalist restructuring. Associated with the popular term of “globalization,” the accelerating mobility of capital, the opening up of new areas of capital penetration; a revolution in financial instruments; the release of huge new low-wage, skilled-labor reservoirs; modern, efficient shipping techniques; the removal of trade barriers and the streamlining of regulation; new formerly public areas opened to private development; and the adoption of trade agreements embodying these changes are among the more important and novel features of the era that we are leaving. 

That era gave capitalism a new lease on life, with growing profits, hyper-accumulation, and vastly expanded speculative investments. Little of that enrichment was shared with the masses, resulting in unprecedented inequalities of income and wealth. 

The great economic collapse of 2007-2009 exhausted the vitality of the epoch of globalism-- capitalist internationalism-- that lasted over two decades. Vast sums of hyper-accumulated capital channeled into riskier and riskier speculation, a process that eventually collapsed from its own arrogance.

Rather than surrender to the inevitability of the “creative destruction” that always naturally follows a crash-- the natural process of sweeping away the toxic “assets” left in the wake of a crash-- the great financial wizards in the financial centers of New York, London, Paris, Zurich, etc. sought to isolate, protect, and sustain the garbage of the disaster and “inflate” a deflated economy through “creative restoration.”

Popularized by economist Joseph Schumpeter, the term “creative destruction” refers to the wreckage left after an economic crash-- the deflated and fictitious “values” associated with bank and enterprise failures, overpriced, unrealized goods and services, lost jobs, bad investments, ruined securities, etc. For Schumpeter and his followers, this destruction was essential for a reset of the economy, a new, fresh beginning, sweeping away the waste products of the crash.

Historically, the pain of a crisis is borne excessively by poor and working people, but the rich and powerful and the corporations are set back as well. The more severe the downturn, the less able the elites are to push all of the consequences onto those less powerful and more vulnerable. And the worse the downturn, the greater the political resistance to business-as-usual.

But after 2007-2009, working people’s institutions were extraordinarily weak, the mainstream party systems offered little advocacy for the victims of the crash, and the policy makers were determined and confident that they could avoid or buffer the period of creative destruction. They believed that they possessed the financial tools that would stabilize and resuscitate the global economy without a period of retrenchment and the accompanying economic setbacks. Central banks spent trillions to buy the worthless "assets" and place them in a lockbox until values could be restored and sold back into markets. And they embarked on an unprecedented decade of free money (ultra-low interest rates) to allow sickly, unprofitable, and marginal enterprises to live on life support and to compete another day. The discipline of the market-- of winners and losers-- gave way to state intervention to keep everyone in the game.

They only succeeded in postponing the inevitable. Today, the effort to forego creative destruction is failing and global institutions know and recognize that failure with their dire projections.

What will follow the collapse of globalism remains a matter of conjecture. 

However, we can see that we are entering a period of growing uncertainty and conflict. The rise of rightwing populism has spawned a strong dissatisfaction with conventional answers and a rise in nationalism and protectionism. Governments in Europe (Hungary, Poland, Italy, the Baltics, etc.) in Asia (India, Turkey, Taiwan, Japan, etc.) have taken a decidedly rightward turn, embracing militarization, sectarianism, anti-liberalism, and nationalism. The US and its allies are no longer the champions of free markets, employing tariffs, sanctions, and other aggressive, winner-take-all measures. 

The alliances and the rules of the game that were established in the 1990s and the first decade of the twenty-first century are now crumbling. Global leadership is now contested, with the war dangers that ensue. The win-win illusions of globalization are mutating into the voracity of grab-whatever-you-can. 

We have not seen in memory a period where the US and its allies simply steal the financial assets of a country like Venezuela or Russia with impunity. All signs point to not a world order, but a world disorder, with alliances coming and going between old allies and old enemies. Turkey can attack Russian planes over Syria and sell drones to Russia to use against Ukraine. Saudi Arabia can assist fundamentalists in killing Russians in Syria and then broker a global oil deal with Russia. Russia can sell weapons to both Peoples’ China and India, as tensions rise between the two. The US can destroy pipelines that offer cheap Russian energy to Germany with impunity, while the UAE sells sanctioned Russian oil back to Germany. And so it goes. Increasingly, the only principle behind international relations is absence of principle. 

Understandably, the highly-educated-- normally Pollyannaish-- minds diligently working for The World Bank, the IMF, and WTO foresee a rough road ahead for global capitalism. The rest of us should take notice. 

Greg Godels

Friday, April 7, 2023

Karl Kautsky, “Ultra-imperialism,” and Multipolarity

The fashionable term “multipolarity” -- popular with a significant section of the international left-- has an historical antecedent. In 1914, Karl Kautsky-- then possibly the most prominent Marxist theoretician in the world-- wrote an essay on the phases of capitalism-- past, current, and future. Like many modern-day multipolaristas who imagine a stable, peaceful imperialism after the taming of the US, Kautsky foresaw a benign phase of capitalist cooperation and peace after the war, after the belligerents were exhausted.  

The capitalist countries would find peace on the international level through a process similar to cartelization-- the formation of monopolies. Kautsky believed that the growth of monopoly concentration on the corporate level-- a process ongoing in the late nineteenth century and acknowledged by nearly everyone-- was parallel with the concentration of countries, their colonies, and spheres of interest on the international level. As monopolies reduce competition among corporations, Kautsky reasoned, ultra-imperialism would reduce competition and rivalry among state powers.

Written a few months before the First World War and published a few months after the war began (with revisions), Ultra-imperialism (September, 1914) sought-- first and foremost-- to explain qualitative changes in capitalism: from its nineteenth-century phase as “free market” capitalism led and dominated by Great Britain, to its imperialist phase or form, existing at the time of Kautsky’s essay, to its ultra-imperialist phase, anticipated by Kautsky after the war would end. 

To today’s reader, Ultra-imperialism may express some unusual, even eccentric ideas, though they reflect the rapidly changing circumstances that engaged Marxists at the turn of the last century. Capitalism was changing; the working-class movement was changing; the socialist parties were changing; and the movement’s leaders were changing. 

Capitalist enterprises were growing larger and larger, absorbing smaller competitors and concentrating significant industries into fewer units. Capital accumulation had grown as well, with the result that financiers were looking farther afield for investment opportunities. And states were encouraging the export of capital, while committing to protection of those investments through acquiring colonies and developing spheres of interest. 

These profound qualitative changes did not go unnoticed; within Marxist circles, not only Kautsky, but others-- Bukharin, Luxemburg, and, of course, Lenin-- were exploring the meaning of these changes. Without question, Lenin’s contribution-- the book, Imperialism-- placed the most indelible stamp on the left’s understanding of imperialism over the next one hundred years.

For Kautsky, changes in the form or phase of capitalism sprang from disproportionalities between industrial and agricultural production. Granting that capitalist industrial production knew no bounds, exchange with the agricultural sector was always limited by the slower growth in the production of foodstuffs and the availability of raw materials, as well as the number of customers for industrial goods. While drawing a distinction between industrial and agricultural sectors may seem artificial to today’s readers, it reflects a difference better expressed as the difference between advanced capitalist countries and pre-industrial regions, countries, and even continents in the early twentieth century.

Kautsky sketches a plausible natural history of the advanced capitalist countries seeking answers to the problem of the “agricultural sector” through exporting capital to other countries for trade and markets. Colonization arises because these new markets lack infrastructure and--frequently-- state structures. The capital exporter finds it easier to impose its state than to create a new state: “Naturally, this is best supplied by the State power of these capitalists themselves… Hence as the drive for increasing capital export from the industrial States to the agrarian zones of the world grows, so too does the tendency to subjugate these zones under their State power.”

This is Kautsky’s theory of the rise of imperialism. Interestingly, Kautsky, unlike Lenin, characterizes this relationship between colonizer and colonized as oppressive, rather than exploitative

Not all countries that develop by the importation of capital are locked into a subordinate role by the industrialized countries; Kautsky cites the US and Russia as enjoying exported capital from other countries, but possessing “the strength to protect [their] autonomy… The desire to hinder this [autonomy] is another motive for the capitalist states to subject the agrarian zones, directly-- as colonies-- or indirectly-- as spheres of influence…”

Where Lenin sees imperialism as an imperative of mature monopoly capitalism-- a stage dictated by the very mechanism powering capitalism-- Kautsky understands imperialism as a policy, a choice made somehow by the collective capitalist: “Does [imperialism] represent the last possible phenomenal form of capitalist world policy, or is another still possible?” 

Significantly, Lenin’s Marxism engages laws of motion to explain the imperialist stage, while Kautsky’s Marxism counts imperialism as a path taken, among others available. 

Further, Kautsky separates the arms race, militarism, and war from the logic of capitalism:

But imperialism has another side. The tendency towards the occupation and subjugation of the agrarian zones has produced sharp contradictions between the industrialized capitalist States, with the result that the arms race… and… the long-prophesied World War has now become a fact. Is this side of imperialism, too, a necessity for the continued existence of capitalism, one that can only be overcome with capitalism itself?

There is no economic necessity for continuing the arms race after the World War, even from the standpoint of the capitalist class itself, with the exception of at most certain armaments [sic] interests. On the contrary, the capitalist economy is seriously threatened precisely by the contradictions between its States. Every far-sighted capitalist today must call on his fellows: capitalists of all countries, unite! [my emphasis]

Thus, for Kautsky-- as opposed to Lenin-- war is not a constant, expected outcome of imperialism. Certainly, the call for capitalists to unite behind peace underscores the difference!

Because the economics of imperialism are turning against the capitalist-- returns on capital exports evidenced a decline, according to Kautsky-- “Imperialism is thus digging its own grave… the policy of imperialism therefore cannot be continued much longer.”

So, what comes next, in light of the pitfalls of continuing imperialism?

Kautsky answers:

What Marx said of capitalism can also be applied to imperialism: monopoly creates competition and competition monopoly. The frantic competition of giant firms, giant banks and multi-millionaires obliged the great financial groups, who were absorbing the small ones, to think up the notion of the cartel. In the same way, the result of the World War between the great imperialist powers may be a federation of the strongest, who renounce their arms race.

Hence from the purely economic standpoint it is not impossible that capitalism may still Jive [sic] through another phase, the translation of cartelization into foreign policy: a phase of ultra-imperialism, which of course we must struggle against as energetically as we do against imperialism, but whose perils lie in another direction, not in that of the arms race and the threat to world peace.

So Kautsky effectively bails out capitalism as the source of war and aggression.

With the finished manuscript about to be published in Die Neue Zeit only a few months after the beginning of what was shaping up to be a world war, Kautsky recognized that readers might find the promise of a post-imperialist lasting peace somewhat questionable. Nonetheless, he foresaw “this last solution, however unlikely it may seem at the moment.”

How do we judge this remarkable projection? Is there merit to the theory of ultra-imperialism?

Clearly, Lenin scathingly rejected it. He wrote in a December, 1915 Introduction to N. Bukharin’s Imperialism and World Economy in his characteristically caustic fashion:

Reasoning theoretically and in the abstract, one may arrive at the conclusion reached by Kautsky… that the time is not far off when those magnates of capital will unite into one world trust which would replace the rivalries and the struggle of nationally limited finance capital by an internationally united finance capital…


Particularly as regards Kautsky, his open break with Marxism has led him, not to reject or forget politics, nor to skim over the numerous and varied political conflicts, convulsions and transformations that particularly characterise the imperialist epoch; nor to become an apologist of imperialism; but to dream about a "peaceful capitalism." "Peaceful" capitalism has been replaced by unpeaceful, militant, catastrophic imperialism… If it is thus impossible simply, directly, and bluntly to dream of going from imperialism back to "peaceful" capitalism, is it not possible to give those essentially petty-bourgeois dreams the appearance of innocent contemplations regarding "peaceful" ultra-imperialism? If the name of ultra-imperialism is given to an international unification of national (or, more correctly, statebound) imperialisms which "would be able" to eliminate the most unpleasant, the most disturbing and distasteful conflicts such as wars, political convulsions, etc., which the petty bourgeois is so much afraid of, then why not turn away from the present epoch of imperialism that has already arrived -- the epoch that stares one in the face, that is full of all sorts of conflicts and catastrophes? Why not turn to innocent dreams of a comparatively peaceful, comparatively conflictless, comparatively non-catastrophic ultra-imperialism? And why not wave aside the "exacting" tasks that have been posed by the epoch of imperialism now ruling in Europe? Why not turn instead of dreaming that this epoch will perhaps soon be over, that perhaps it will be followed by a comparatively "peaceful" epoch of ultra-imperialism which demands no such "sharp tactics"[?]

In this tendency to evade the imperialism that is here and to pass in dreams to an epoch of "ultra-imperialism," of which we do not even know whether it is realisable, there is not a grain of Marxism… [H]e offers us not Marxism, but a petty-bourgeois and deeply reactionary tendency to soften contradictions… Kautsky again only promises to be a Marxist in the coming epoch of ultra-imperialism, of which he does not know whether it will arrive! …For to-morrow we have Marxism on credit, Marxism as a promise, Marxism deferred. For to-day we have a petty-bourgeois opportunist theory -- and not only a theory -- of softening contradictions.

Lenin was, first and foremost, a political polemicist. While he was a profoundly deep thinker, he worked most often in the heat of political battles, where sarcasm and ridicule struck with the greatest force.

He explains Kautsky’s theory in the context of opportunism. Because Kautsky’s intellectual ship-- and that of other Social Democratic leaders- - had left their Marxist moorings, they were susceptible to the allure of idealized, dream-like illusions of peaceful capitalism and, subsequently, peaceful imperialism.

Against these illusions, Lenin pressed the realities of a growing human catastrophe-- World War I-- which was only beginning to reveal the human misery that lay ahead. It was this imperialist war-- a war with no meaning besides imperialist rivalry-- that shatters Kausky’s dream.

With over a hundred years and the benefit of hindsight, we can better judge whether Kautsky’s “Marxism on credit, Marxism as a promise” can be cashed or redeemed. History is always the laboratory for the science of Marxism.

Clearly, Lenin was correct and Kautsky wildly mistaken-- no period of peaceful capitalism or peaceful imperialism followed the first great war of the twentieth century. To the contrary, the last century was one of constant wars, imperialist aggression, and unprecedented human devastation. Nor could it be otherwise, as Lenin would argue, as long as capitalism continued to generate competition and rivalry.

Movements could and should rise to oppose this tendency. Revolutionaries should stand firmly against these wars and they should attempt to marshal as much broad support to delay, thwart, and stop these wars, but they should not be under the illusion that capitalism and its instrument, imperialism, would not continually express this tendency.

Kautsky’s theoretical argument for ultra-imperialism rests on a common mistake in understanding both Marx and monopoly. On the level of enterprises, Kautsky sees discrete stages where a competitive industrial sector moves inexorably towards a monopolized industry (he concedes that Marx always notes that monopoly always goes to competition, as well-- an inconvenient formulation that he conveniently ignores). His theory of imperialism builds on this model: on the level of countries, he argues that imperialist competition (rivalry) always moves towards a global monopoly, an imperialist combine or cartel.

Hence, the global economy will usher in an era of stability and peace-- ultra-imperialism.

But this is neither true to Marx’s thinking nor consistent with the dialectics of competition. The foundation of the Marxist theory of competition is found in the earliest published Marxist tract on political economy, Frederich Engels’ neglected Outlines of A Critique of Political Economy (1844), which gives considerable attention to competition and monopoly and birthed the proposition: “Monopoly produces free competition, and the latter, in turn, produces monopoly.”

While Engels understands the dialectical relation of competition to monopoly, he insists on the constancy of competition: “We have seen that in the end everything comes down to competition, so long as private property exists.” 

In this, one of the clearest statements of the dialectics of competition, Engels explains this as, not necessarily discrete stages, but as a fundamental interplay:

The opposite of competition is monopoly… It is easy to see that this antithesis is again quite hollow…Competition is based on self-interest, and self interest in turn breeds monopoly. In short, competition passes over into monopoly. On the other hand, monopoly cannot stem the tide of competition-- indeed, it itself breeds competition.

Engels emphasizes that competition is fundamental to what Marxists would call the capitalist mode of production-- it permeates every aspect of capitalist social and economic life. While concentration (monopoly) is an ever-present process, it never supersedes competition, nor does it erase competition. Kautsky’s mechanical Marxism-- like later day theorists of monopoly such as Sweezy and Baran-- misunderstands both the constancy of competition and the process of monopoly or cartelization. Competition (rivalry) is the mainspring of capitalism in all of its forms and remains so as capitalism evolves. 

Is Today’s Multipolarity the same as Kautsky’s Ultra-imperialism?

It has become popular, especially with the left, to hail the weakening of US and NATO imperialism as the singular goal of the anti-imperialist project. Certainly, a weaker, defanged US foreign policy, corporate reach, and military posture is both an urgent task and a fully justified goal for anti-imperialists. But should it be the singular goal? 

After the fall of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies, the world might have appeared to be unipolar. The US, the remaining superpower that survived the Cold War, exercised near-absolute control over global institutions, maintained military bases in every region, and met little early resistance to its plans. As the US intervened in more and more countries' internal affairs, the description of a “unipolar world” seemed more and more apt.

Predictably, resistance emerged. Several countries rebelled, especially in the Middle East and Central and South America. Popular movements, in defiance of the US, chose independent policies, insisted on national sovereignty, even waged what Lenin called “national wars” -- direct or proxy national liberation wars (e.g. Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria) -- against the US.

The twenty-first century saw further erosion of the US’s unipolar status and increasing resistance to the US government’s diktats. The growing economic might of People's China, largely untouched by global economic turmoil, challenged the US on that front, as did Russia’s growing military might and energy competitiveness. 

Clearly, only decades after declaring itself the global leader, US hegemony was under stress. Influence, power, and leadership were diversifying. In significant ways, the world was becoming multipolar. And, insofar as this new order restricts the US arena of action, it is a good thing.

But multipolarity as reality is different from multipolarity as a doctrine. To welcome multipolarity because it restrains the US is one thing; to welcome multipolarity because it heralds a new age of peaceful coexistence and world harmony is another-- something far more misleading and dangerous. 

Like Kautsky, some on the left leap to the conclusion that capitalism can be delinked from competition or rivalry, if only the US were contained. As Lenin observed, there is more wishful thinking in this position than a reflection of reality. 

For doctrinaire multipolaristas, a century-old history of imperialist rivalry among the great powers, disrupted only partially by a united anti-Soviet, anti-Communist crusade, counts as little evidence that capitalism invariably stokes imperialist rivalries. They choose to overlook this pattern.

Less than two decades after the end of the great imperialist war, Japan, Italy, and Germany had begun quests of imperialist expansion, often at the expense of the empires of other great powers like the UK and France.

At mid-century, the Cold War confrontation and the threat of nuclear annihilation tempered the danger of global war, yet wars of both national liberation and anti-insurgency raged-- imperialist wars. In many cases, economic aggression replaced military aggression, as former colonial masters sought to establish neo-colonial relations.

Despite this backdrop of persistent, unending imperialist competition and conflict, multipolaristas imagine a coming era of multilateral cooperation and mutual respect. 

They imagine that India and Pakistan will establish an unprecedented harmony; that Japanese claims to the Kuril Islands will dissolve; that Balkan rivalries and Armenian and Azerbaijan conflicts will magically resolve; that the long-standing and always simmering rivalries in the Middle East will disappear; and that the struggle to control the vast wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo will wither away and be settled peacefully, once US imperialism is contained.

They see no ominous signs in the growing belligerence and greatly expanded military budgets of Germany and Japan. They hail global realignments and new alliances as steps toward peace, rather than potential sources of conflict.

The war in Ukraine unleashed a far greater threat to local, regional, and even global war than we have seen in fifty years. As Ian Buruma has noted, the war has licensed Germany to expand its war budget by 100 billion euros, while loosening the post-war shackles on this former instigator of the last global war, a moment that Chancellor Scholz calls a “historic turning point.”

Buruma cites a commitment that Japanese prime minister Kishida makes to increase military spending by 50% in 5 years, a dangerous break with Japan’s constitutional fetters. This is an omen of the utopian multipolarity to come? 

Like Kautsky’s theory of ultra-imperialism, this theory of a peaceful and harmonious world of capitalist powers is a radical departure from what history teaches and from today’s realities. And like Kautsky, its proponents have lost touch with the dynamics of capitalism in the era of imperialism. Kautsky saw the basic contradiction of his time between competitive capitalism and monopoly capitalism, with the “cartelization” of empires eliminating global rivalries.

Today’s multipolaristas see the struggle between unipolarity and multipolarity as the principal contradiction facing the world. As with ultra-imperialism, this is an illusion that allows them to evade the great contradiction of our time: the struggle between an overripe, failed system-- capitalism-- and socialism.

Since the demise of Soviet socialism, advocacy of socialism has fallen out of fashion. To most on the left, socialism is, at best, a far-off dream, well beyond our reach. No doubt this despair-- unmatched even by the most desperate times of the past-- informs the attraction of multipolarity, something that appears within reach.

But intellectual integrity requires that we go where the truth takes us. And the truth in our day-- like the truth in Kautsky’s day-- demands that we recognize that capitalism generates war. And the final solution to war is socialism.

Greg Godels